Friday, April 25, 2008


In the tradition of "Shakespeare in Love", "Moliere" invents a fanciful yarn based on speculative historical fiction taken from a piece of real life - in this case, the mysterious disappearance of the French playwright for several months in 1644 - and concocts a thoroughly irresistible and lavish story of intrigue, romance, comedy and artistic inspiration.

Beginning in Paris, the 22-year-old Jean Baptiste Poquelin, also known as Moliere, is not yet the writer that history recognizes as the father and true master of comic satire, author of "The Misanthrope" and "Tartuffe", and a dramatist to rank alongside Shakespeare and Sophocles. Far from it. He is, in fact, a failed actor.

Director Laurent Tirard roots the story in an intriguing fact about Moliere's life - a spell in prison for failure to repay debts. History loses track when he's bailed out by 'anonymous', but Tirard imagines his saviour as wealthy trader Monsieur Jourdain (the sublimely hilarious Fabrice Luchini). Jordain puts him up at the mansion and demands acting lessons, for he plans to woo a pretty, sharp-tongued Marquise (Ludivine Sagnier) by performing a self-composed play. Of course, the play is rotten and what's worse, Jourdain is married.

In an echo of Moliere's "Tartuffe", the hapless thespian poses as a holy man, providing the cue for a lot of cunning misdirection and embarrassing mix-ups. And it wouldn't be a French farce without the added complication of Moliere's growing affection for Jourdain's wife (Laura Morante). Yet there's a heartfelt story at the film's core, infused with the bittersweet romantic spirit of the playwright's work.

Moliere falls in love with Madame Jourdain and during an intricate intrigue - ripe with amorous entanglements, literary subterfuge and moments of pure wit - he comes to discover that comedy can plumb depths as profound as tragedy, yet raise the human spirit to an audience's delight.

As Moliere, the magnetic Romain Duris displays all of his usual seductive intensity, but also pulls off goofy Gallic charm. There's something of a modern rock star to him, almost a cousin to Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. In addition there's a superb cast of actors, and visually viewers are taken on a sumptuous, wild ride through Versailles-era France. This absorbing romp has an infectious sense of fun that lingers well after the curtain falls.

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