It’s an old saw in creative writing classes to write about what you know. Some screenplays about authors employ that dictum in more ways than one: they’re not only biographical pieces about writers their own creators presumably know something about, but they also depict the works of their subjects as deriving from the authors’ life experiences. The best-known—and most successful—recent example was certainly “Shakespeare in Love,” the 1998 Oscar winner that posited the notion that as a young man the Bard had a romance that inspired “Romeo and Juliet.” But the current “Becoming Jane” is based on the premise that the events of Jane Austen’s early life—in particular difficulties surrounding an arranged marriage and a love match—were reflected in her novels, most notably “Pride and Prejudice.”
The same idea takes a Gallic turn in “Moliere,” Laurent Tirard’s film about the seventeenth-century playwright. The script by Tirard and Gregoire Vigneron suggests that in 1645 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, pen name Moliere, was trapped in a farcical romantic triangle involving a wealthy man and his lovely wife, and later transformed the episode into classic comedies like “Tartuffe.” It’s an engaging conceit, but one pulled off with only mixed results here. Tirard’s movie is certainly attractive to look at, but what goes on in front of the manicured lawns and sumptuous seventeenth-century interiors is considerably less amusing than it might be.
In this telling, young Moliere (played by Romain Duris without much charisma—he’s rather like a costumed John Malkovich without the same sense of impish glee) is tossed into jail for failing to pay the debts of his theatrical troupe; but his public ridiculing of the process servers sent to arrest him suggests a facility for comedy that might be more profitable than his previous attempts at portentous tragedy. And when he’s freed from his cell by the agent of a rich merchant named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), he’s happy to accept the man’s largesse.
But the quid-pro-quo causes him trouble. Jourdain, though he has a beautiful wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), is besotted with a young, witty—and widowed—noblewoman named Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier), and wants Moliere to enter his household in the guise of a learned clergyman, Tartuffe, who will ostensibly serve as tutor to his daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette). But in reality his duty will be to teach Jourdain acting, so that the merchant will have the wherewithal to present a play he’s written for the marquise and thereby win her love. Of course, Moliere’s benefactor—played by Luchini with deadpan comic timing (it helps that he looks a bit like the sad-faced silent star Harry Langdon)—is such a klutz, and his writing so bad, that the scheme is hopeless. But the presence of “Tartuffe” also irritates the rationalist Elmire—until Moliere finds himself irresistibly drawn to her and romances her in the added guise of a secret admirer.
There are other elements to the plot, including the machinations of the penurious but well-placed nobleman Dorante (Edouard Baer), who extracts loans from Jourdain by pretending to act as a go-between for him with Celimene (and hopes to arrange the marriage of his son to Henrietta), and Henrietta’s secret romance with a handsome commoner. The whole tale is also bookended by scenes set in 1658, when Moliere returned with his troupe from a triumphant tour of the provinces to Paris, where the king’s brother has given them a theatre on the strength of their fame in farce but Moliere wants to turn his attention to serious fare—a decision altered by his visit to a terminally ill person whose identity is revealed only near the close, but will not come as any great surprise. In any event, the encounter, in this imaginative account, led the playwright back to the past events we’ve already witnessed for inspiration as to how to please his patron and the public.
The idea behind “Moliere” certainly has potential, and the film is very handsomely mounted, with gorgeous locations, production design (Francoise Dupertuis) and costuming (Pierre-Jean Larroque), lush widescreen cinematography (Filles Henry) and an evocative background score (Frederic Talgorn) that makes use of music of the period. The trouble is that as played out here, it’s just not very amusing. The cast is fine—Luchini in particular has some good moments—and Tirard stages it confidently. But the joke never really takes flight. The film remains curiously stolid and earthbound.
In other words, within its genre it falls into the class of “Becoming Jane” rather than “Shakespeare in Love.”