“No more farces!” It’s 1658, and the famous satirist Molière (Romain Duris) is determined to change his fortune by returning to Paris with his ever-loyal troupe with new material. Though he well understands that the comedies are popular and profitable, he decides, rather like a rock star who resents fans’ dictations, to write drama. Sadly, his talent as a writer and performer has limits. Indeed, he is informed, “You are a terrible tragedian.”
This would be the premise of Laurent Tirard’s rather loosely fashioned biopic, in which the celebrity learns that privilege is not infinite, other people have feelings too, and oh yes, love hurts. Embedded in this rudimentary education is another, broader and somewhat more sophisticated lesson, that oppositions (like, say, comedy and tragedy) are social niceties, not real things at all. And in between, Molière offers as well as a series of farcical events — false identities, silly drag scenes, clandestine lovers, even an overenthusiastic dog or two.
Molière’s part in all this ruckus shifts: at times he observes, at others he comments — with some wit and much morality. At still other moments he’s in the middle of it, bedding someone else’s wife, abetting young lovers whose activities are forbidden by the girl’s father, and writing his own girlfriend about how much he misses her — even as he’s bedding that other guy’s wife. A French literary/historical hero, he’s energetic and cocky, occasionally charming but convinced that he is all the time. As he puts it during one drunken pronouncement, “I am the greatest author the country has ever known.” Soon, he says, people will not be speaking French, but will demand, “Speak to me in the language of Molière!” And with that, he falls off the stage.
Such antics don’t precisely support Molière’s case for his own dramatic greatness, but they do underline his resilient self-regard, which is the film’s focus. Following a brief imprisonment for debt (this happened in Molière’s real life), the film imagines he finds an unusual gig, bailed out by a wealthy fan, Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini). The catch? Molière must take up residence at Jourdain’s estate and secretly write for him a play to impress the current object of his affection, the snooty Célimene (Ludivine Sagnier), perpetually surrpunded by a “pack of yappy admirers.” The older man doesn’t imagine his object (whom Molière will go on to satirize as a précieuse in later plays) won’t return his affection if only she thinks he’s cunning and vaguely modish. He also can’t own up to the project in front of his distrustful wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), so he conjures a ruse: Molière poses as a priest — named “Tartuffe” — and will be tutoring the Jourdains’ younger daughter. (The older one, Henriette [Fanny Valette], is distracted anyway, as her boyfriend is too poor to please her father.)
The story is unconvincing from jump. The men meet covertly in order to write and eventually, so that Jourdain can learn how to act as well, again as a means to win the young widow’s heart. Jourdain’s imitation of a horse — all big whinnies and snorts modeled on Molière’s demonstration — is exceptionally ridiculous, even if it is suggesting the artist’s comic inspiration, as he proclaims, “Acting is a profession of sensitivities, not appearances.” Jourdain’s motivations aren’t nearly so complicated as his instructor’s: he’s smitten and, perhaps more to the point, he’s used to getting what he wants. And so he doesn’t know enough to doubt the obviously odious Dorante (Edouard Baer), whom he believes to be reporting Célimene’s positive reactions to his letters and poems, though the go-between is only delivering the dupe’s gifts as if they are his own, that is, trying to win the heart of the self-important lady for himself. (She’s undeniably vivacious, but insufferable, Sagnier’s performance big and boomy, which means she fits in with the rest of the film’s overstatement.)
The relationship between Joudain and Molière is established in equally unsubtle strokes — for a film about a brilliant satirists, this one is singularly lacking brilliance and satire. Beyond the horse-performance episode, they argue repeatedly over Molière’s sense of delicacy, his warnings against “an excess of enthusiasm” and his encouragement of “simplicity.” (Guess what tack his employer wants to take with their writing?)
In the meantime, Molière seduces and then falls in love with Elmire, presented here as wise, decent, and inexplicably entranced by her erratic new paramour. She deciphers his priesty show right away, then may or may not be bedding him to get back at her husband. When it turns out that she is actually impressed by him, the reason is his writing, which allows the film to make the case for his greatness in another way, as if Molière’s actual work doesn’t do at least that much. When, for instance, Molière and Elmire prepare initially to meet (she doesn’t know yet that “Tartuffe” is the young writer whose letters leave her breathless), they appear before their bedroom mirrors, the frames arranged to suggest they are looking at one another. A device that’s more clumsy than clever, the mirrors again show the film’s inclination to prop up and reestablish what’s quite evident.
Perhaps the most egregious instance of such hyperbole casts Molière as an observer, though the scene is more about him than the over-actors in front of him. When Jourdain dresses as a girl (imagine Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a wig and corset) in order to overhear Célimene’s true feelings, he’s appalled by her cruelty, and suddenly realizes her shallowness. He accuses her (“How clever your mind is in uncovering our weaknesses”), but his upset speaks to the cruelty of Molière’s work as well. The movie doesn’t come back to defend him or his art, which skewers all manner of social abuse and presumption. Instead, it leaves him believing in true love after all, the rock star undone by Hallmark.