Aug 13, 2007

Molière: A Noble Fool

A fantasy about Molière is a commentary on the value of comedy.

By Ryan Wenzel

Molière | Directed by Laurent Tirard | Written by Laurent Tirard and Grégoire Vigneron | With Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante, Edouard Baer, Ludivine Sagnier, and Fanny Valette

In 1645 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin—better known to us as Molière—left Paris to tour the provinces, staging comedies with his fledgling Illustrious Theatre. Upon his return 13 years later he began writing the sophisticated satires that would make him standard fare in French lit classes even today. In their new film Molière, their first joint effort since 2004’s The Story of My Life, writer-director Laurent Tirard and writer Grégoire Vigneron try to fill in a six-month gap in the playwright’s biography just before his departure, imagining what directed his development and inspired some of his most famous works. The approach isn’t new—the film’s already been dubbed “Molière in Love”—but the result is a wry look at the nature of acting and the power of comedy.

The film opens in 1658, when Molière (Romain Duris) returns to Paris from the provinces. When the king’s brother requests a performance, he immediately plans to impress his noble audience with an epic tragedy. “They deserve more than vulgar farces,” he tells his fellow actors. “Our company deserves more than vulgar farces.” Much to his disappointment, however, his patron insists they perform one of their renowned diversions.

Rather abruptly, the story rewinds 13 years to show Molière at his most pathetic. Unable to pay the bills for his troupe’s theater space, he’s imprisoned and his father, disgusted by his base profession, refuses to assist. Here begins Tirard and Vigneron’s fantasy. Unexpectedly a wealthy businessman named Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), whose employee has sung Molière’s praises, settles the debt. In return Jourdain, an aging man with an awkward air, asks his help in staging a one-act play to win the affections of Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier), a fiery young marquise with a long line of suitors. Reluctantly Molière agrees. To avoid arousing the suspicions of Jourdain’s wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), he dons the guise of a priest, adopts the name Tartuffe, and agrees to pose as a tutor for the couple’s teenage daughter.

Jourdain escorts Molière to his sprawling country estate, a locus of luxury and senseless frivolity, where he hastily dismisses his music teacher, who has been waiting for hours by the harpsichord, and spends only a few moments with his dancing and painting instructors. Within a matter of weeks, webs of desire and deception entangle everyone in the house. Jourdain tries to communicate with Célimène through Dorante (Edouard Baer), a pleasure-seeking sloth who tears up his letters and passes off Jourdain’s lavish gifts as his own. Elmire, who initially abhors Molière, gradually falls in love with his eloquence, and he with her beauty. The two start a passionate affair, though publicly Elmire continues to treat Molière as she would any priest. Jourdain’s daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette) carries on a secret courtship with a young man, knowing her father plans to wed her to a higher-ranking suitor. Purposely mimicking her father, she introduces him to the family as her singing tutor.

The plot moves quickly, and although the characters strategically share their secrets, surprisingly little is revealed about them. Jourdain’s business is never discussed, Elmire is simply a woman of sophistication and beauty, and though Duris beautifully conveys the title character’s alternating inner torment and elation, we never know what truly motivates him. This lack of character development is common to Molière’s comedies, which have only the bones of a plot and whose principal roles tend to stress their universality—the characters are no one and everyone. The film, however, makes up for it with physical comedy and clever dialogue. “I am the first to suffer from the image I must portray,” Molière tells Elmire, in an attempt to reveal his identity and confess his love. “I understood long ago that men of the church are for the most part mere actors,” she replies, half-smiling.

Performance—both on and off the stage—is a common theme in Molière’s work. A glimpse of the Illustrious Theatre’s early attempts at tragedy stresses the difficulty of the craft; the audience hurls food at them. Yet when affections, money, and reputation are at risk, the characters are able to give nuanced performances. Jourdain proves a miserable actor in the play he stages for Célimène, for example, but he manages to convince his wife he is faithful.

At its core, however, Molière is about the elevation of comedy. Throughout the film, the playwright is reluctant to embrace farces, which appealed primarily to the uneducated. He aspires to the loftier form of tragedy, but, as Elmire points out, is clearly not cut out for it. With flailing arms he performs a dramatic monologue “bleating,” she tells him, like a goat that has lost its mother. “I know what touches me and what bores me,” she says. “Your pranks are far more touching than any tragedy.” She encourages him to invent a new style of comedy that can support the weightier subject matter he wishes to explore and to take his company on the road.

He heeds her advice to an extent but, still doubtful of comedy’s potential, refrains from staging original work until his return to Paris. Encouraged by his noble commissioner’s demands, he writes Such Foolish Affected Ladies, The Misanthrope, and Tartuffe—all plays that paired traditional comedic conventions with caustic criticism of hypocrisy, excessive pride, and humanity at large.

Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tom Stoppard, and other comic playwrights have similarly made a higher art of comedy, but tragedy’s hegemony continues to thrive, particularly in film. That may be because popular comedies usually offer not depth or stimulation but escape. Molière isn’t perfect, but through homage to the playwright’s work and by its own example it reminds us that humor can make us laugh and think at the same time—even if it often doesn’t.

*This article is officially published at Chicago Readers

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