In case you were wondering it is not official and there is now a sub-genre of historical fiction films that we will call "Shakespeare in Love." These are films in which case we learn that (gasp!) the life of a famous author parallels one of their most famous works. For Wm. Shakespeare it was a mixture of "Romeo & Juliet" and "Twelfth Night." "Becoming Jane" purports to find the real Mr. Darcy in the life of Jane Austen. Here, despite a title suggesting that this is a look at the entire life of the celebrated French playwright, we discover that "Tartuffe," arguably the best of the comedies of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (the artist known as Molière), was based on a personal tragedy. This, of course, echoes the whole "laugh clown even though your heart is breaking" idea personified by Canio's "Vesti la giubba" aria from "Pagliacci," which is clearly a key element of this particular sub-genre. I bring all of this up because if I had not seen the other films cited above, then I might have a higher estimation of "Molière." Instead, I am wondering if there will be similar films made about the attendant ironies between creators and creations for the likes of Sophocles, Henrik Ibsen, or anybody else that comes to mind down to Stephen King. Just imagine the existentialist trauma of "Samuel Beckett in Love."
"Molière" begins in 1658, when the playwright and actor, played by Romain Duris, returns to Paris from touring France with his company of players. He has been given a theater by the King and instead of doing one of the farces for which he has become well known, Molière aspires to write something better. Then a young woman shows up and requests that he accompany her to the deathbed of her mother. We then go back a dozen years when Molière troupe is so bankrupt that he is thrown into prison (but not after getting a lot of laughs from his audience). Molière's is saved by the wealthy Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), who likes to hire experts to help with his various needs and who requires a playwright to help him rehearse a play he has written to seduce the beautiful widow Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier). The fact that Jourdain is married to Elmire (Laura Morante) requires the playwright to do so incognito. Hence he presents himself to the rest of Jourdain's family as a priest named...Tartuffe.
As was the case with "Shakespeare in Love," where the more you remembered about "Romeo & Juliet" and "Twelfth Night," the more you could appreciate what was happening in the story, the same applies here with regards to Molière's "Tartuffe ou l'Imposteur" ("Tartuffe or the Hypocrite"). For example, the name Tartuffe is not the only one to be recognized from the play and provides your first major clue as to who the playwright's love interest will be in the film. Those who are familiar with Molière's work will also see echoes of scenes from both "Le Misanthrope" ("The Misanthrope"), and "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" ("The Bourgeois Gentleman"). This is not to say that this 2007 film does not work unless you know your Molière, but rather to say that there are levels to these film only accessible to those few person.
Director Laurent Tirard ("The Story Of My Life / Mensonges et trahisons et plus si affinites"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Grégoire Vigneron, is basically trying to turn the unknown part of Molière's life into one of the playwright's comedy of manners. The trick, of course, is for the cast to act this out in a much more realistic manner than we would see watching a Molière play performed on stage. Consequently the proceeding are relatively sedate and despite the inherent irony of the situation, not as comic as a Molière comedy. However, that is necessary to set up the final scenes of the film, both in the past and the "present," where things take a more serious turn. I actually liked the ending(s), considerably more than the set up. Duris' best moments are the few where his character gets to show his comic genius on stage, but it is Luchini who turns in the film's best performance as Jourdain. Since the film is in French with subtitles, that probably increases the odds that those on this side of the Pond who decide to check it out will do so because these like Molière's plays and will appreciate all the nods and winks ot his work. But those who are starting to overdose on these authors in love movies might not want to bother with another one.