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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a. "Becoming Moliere"
4 stars

It was only last week in this very space that I took the film "Becoming Jane" to task for purporting to offer up a storyline that promised to tell the real story of what inspired Jane Austen to become the beloved authoress that we all know and love but which delivered a largely fictionalized bit of nonsense that was less interested in Austen as a creative personality than it was in figuring out another way of reselling the basics of "Pride and Prejudice" to the same audiences that have lapped up any number of recent adaptations and updatings. Now we have "Moliere," a film that does to the former Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the author of such landmark plays as "The Misanthrope" and "Tartuffe," what "Becoming Jane" did for Austen--it offers up the hoary old cliche that one can only write about love if one is truly in love and suggests that the lasting works of its hero were less a result of creative inspiration and more the result simply transcribing some recent events in his life with only a couple of minor tweaks here and there--and yet I found myself enjoying it a great deal more than I did "Becoming Jane." Maybe it is because I prefer Moliere to Austen or maybe it is because anything seems classier when it has a French twist to it (with the obvious exception of "Rush Hour 3"). Then again, it could just be that while the writing doesn't quite reach the transcendent heights achieved by its central character, it nevertheless contains enough wit and charm to keep things humming along even when the plot threatens to bog down into a Gallic version of a typical episode of "Love American Style."

The film kicks off in 1693 with the triumphant return of Moliere (Romain Duris) and his theatrical troupe to Paris after a 13-year absence, a period in which he has become an enormously popular figure thanks to his bawdy farces. He has been summoned by the royal family to write and perform a new play but as soon as he arrives, Moliere makes a vow of "no more farces" and tells his troupe that their next work will be a serious tragedy. This is not good news for the troupe--they realize that they have been brought there to perform a farce and to make matters worse, the broad performance style that Moliere utilizes on stage, while fine for comedies, is woefully unsuited for the purposes of straightforward drama. Nevertheless, Moliere insists and meets with the royals to inform them once and for all of his plans to give them something a little more serious. Of course, he immediately caves in to them and agrees to do a comedy but is at a loss as to what he should write about. Just then, a message arrives summoning him to a remote estate where someone is clearly on their deathbed. From this point, we launch into a flashback that will take up the majority of the running time to tell the story of who the dying person is and why it has affected Moliere so much.

The flashback takes us to 13 years earlier, a time when Moliere and his troupe are so poverty-stricken that he is actually arrested on stage in the middle of a performance for the crime of having debts that no honest budding satirist can pay. Before long, however, he is released from jail and taken to the estate of the wealthy and foolish Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) to hear a most intriguing proposal. It seems that Jourdain is smitten with the lovely and fragrant widow Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier) and wishes to make her his mistress. Since she is a refined lass, Jourdain has decided that the best way to win her heart is to write and perform a play for her and she will be so taken with his artistic grace that she will immediately swoon for him. Moliere's job in this mission, should he choose to accept it, is to help him stage the film, offer acting lessons and, most importantly, keep all of this a secret from Jourdain's wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), by posing as a religious instructor hired to tutor the youngest daughter and in return, Jourdain will pay off all of his debts so that the theater company can continue.

After getting a glance at the play that Jourdain has written and discovering that Dorante (Edouard Baer), the "friend" that Jourdain has been employing to help woo Celimene is actually a bounder who has been using Jourdain's clueless nature (not to mention his money) to woo Celimene for himself, Moliere comes to the instant realization that the entire scheme is doomed and tries to flee. He immediately returns, however, and while part of that is because of the guard dogs roaming the grounds to prevent him from leaving, he also seems to realize that he has stumbled into a real-life farce and cannot resist the challenge of performing in it himself. It also helps that Elmire is both quite the looker herself and so clearly unsatisfied with her dopey and inattentive husband that she might easily fall under the sway of the nearest hunk to pay her a bit of attention. Who knows, the entire situation is so rich with possibilities that Moliere might even one day be able to mine it for material.

Although I do not presume to know the details of Moliere’s life and work, I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that “Moliere” is less concerned with presenting an accurate depiction of the man and his art than it is with presenting a French riff on the same formula that made “Shakespeare in Love” such a popular success. While some scholars have dismissed the resulting film as being little more than “Moliere For Dummies,” such a judgements seems a bit harsh to me. Yes, the film is wildly uneven in the way that the droll verbal wordplay that one might expect is evenly matched with crude slapstick humor at every turn, the framing device is more than a little awkward and there are enough loose ends (such as the sideline romance between Jourdain’s elder daughter and a poor neighbor boy) and seemingly key moments that are kept off-screen (such as the bit where Jourdain performs his presumably awful play for Celimene) that you may suspect that co-writer/director Laurent Tirard originally filmed a much longer version of this story and was forced to cut it way down in order to get it to a manageable length. And yet, every time that I found myself getting to the point of dismissing it as another bit of pseudo-literary gibberish a la “Becoming Jane” (which I had just seen a few days earlier), there would always be some bit of business that would bring me back into it, especially the scenes involving the hilariously clueless Jourdain. There is one great bit in which he rushes through his daily artistic “lessons” that had me laughing a lot (especially the way in which his art instructor tactfully tries to tell him that one has to actually apply the brush to the canvas in order to paint properly) and his first face-to-face encounter with Celimene is a little masterpiece of acute comic embarrassment. That said, the film is good-hearted enough not to simply paint him as a cuckolded fool and the scene in which he confronts his beloved after surreptitiously overhearing her real thoughts about him comes across with a surprising amount of power and force.

That climactic scene works as well as it does because of the fine performance from Fabrice Luchini as Jourdain and “Moliere” has been blessed with enough strong performances to help keep things humming along when the story threatens to go off the rails. Although he comes across as a little forced during his more purely dramatic moments, Romain Duris proves himself to be an inspired farceur indeed. (Of course, seeing as how Duris showed his considerable dramatic chops in the cult favorite “The Beat My Heart Skipped,” it could be that he has deliberately stumbled in the dramatic scenes in order to better underline his character’s own performance shortcomings.) As the woman who inspired Moliere’s brain, among other organs, Laura Morante invests the character of Madame Jourdain with enough fire and energy to make those of us wonder why her husband would even consider straying from someone that most men would cheerfully crawl through broken glass for. The rest of the cast is equally amusing (though I wish that the luminous Ludivine Sagnier could have been given a little more to do) and thanks to their combined efforts, “Moliere” becomes the kind of film that fans of highbrow literature and lowbrow farce (albeit, subtitled lowbrow farce) can embrace equally.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16461&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/10/07 01:15:02
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User Comments

4/25/08 vik sarakula expected the worst, realized the best 5 stars
12/13/07 William Goss Perpetually enjoyable for all its familiarity. Entire cast helps take up the slack. 4 stars
8/30/07 Heather Very sweet and intelligent movie 5 stars
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  10-Aug-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 22-Jan-2008



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Laurent Tirard

Written by
  Laurent Tirard
  Grégoire Vigneron

  Romain Duris
  Ludivine Sagnier
  Laura Morante

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