Directed by Laurent Tirard. Starring Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante, Edouard Baer, Ludivine Sagnier, Fanny Valette, Mélanie Dos Santos, Gonzague Requillart. (2007, PG-13, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Aug. 24, 2007
In 1644, 22-year-old French playwright/actor Molière up and vanished from the historical record. One minute he was wasting away in debtor’s prison the next he was gone, only to turn up a few months later leading his theatre troupe out of Paris for what would become the true beginning of a legendary theatrical career. While the question of how the writer of The Misanthrope passed that interim may not compete with the sexual proclivities of William Shakespeare or the whereabouts of Thomas Pynchon for sheer literary mystery, it is engaging enough for screenwriters Grégoire Vigneron and Tirard to indulge their own speculations. And what they have decided is that the future genius of French satire spent those missing months not on a marauding pirate ship or in some cloistered monastery but on the set of Meet the Parents vs. Shakespeare in Love: A Farce in Three Acts. Sprung from prison by an aging landowner looking for acting lessons to impress a potential mistress, Molière (Duris) is forced to play the role of a bumbling priest in order to hide his identity, all the while carrying on an affair with the man’s wife, Elmire (Morante), a woman who will eventually inspire him to the great literary heights of his later career. Half comedian of errors, half tormented lover, Molière splits his time between wreaking malaprop havoc on the Book of Common Prayer, running from guard dogs, and gazing longingly at his muse’s cleavage. In other words, Molière should be a cinematic slam dunk, as it’s the kind of film that allows audiences to laugh at actors slipping on banana peels and feel educated at the same time. So how could it go so wrong? Simple enough: Molière’s Molière, Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped), is neither funny enough to be Ben Stiller nor handsome enough to be Joseph Fiennes (and vice versa), so the movie was buried before it even began. Playing comedy, Duris is as engaging as a bowl of porridge; playing tragedy, he’s the height of comic absurdity; in scenes romantic, he’s detached to the point of somnolence. I can only wonder what theatre gods Molière angered during his lifetime to deserve such ragtag biographical treatment, but let’s hope Molière settles the debt.