Sunday, February 10, 2008

Film Review #146: Molière
2007/DVD 2008
Director: Laurent Tirard
Cast: Romain Duris, Laura Morante, Fabrice Luchini

Clearly he’s sincere. Pelted with cat-calls and rotten fruit – his chin drips with the juice – this actor carries on with his tragic lines, declaiming, deep-voiced, and sorrowful. Thirteen years later, famous and called to Paris to entertain the royal court, he’ll still hanker after serious high art; Madeleine, his long-time mistress and partner in leading this acting troupe, informs him he’s still terrible at it. Meanwhile, things are really not going his way. As the crowd turns belligerent, two officers of the law barge in on his faltering performance with one of their own – a solemn march on stage, a scroll unfurled, a portentous declaration of charges against him. Like many a young man suddenly cornered by creditors and facing arrest, the young Molière improvises desperately. We’ve seen this somewhere – yes, maybe in old Marx Brothers movies or on Saturday mornings with Bugs Bunny – the prankster leaping behind some ponderous authority figure, seeming to vanish, tapping him from behind so one cop swings around and slugs the other. Pleased with himself and the chaos he’s stirred up after a few rounds of this, Molière bows lavishly, basks in applause. Cut to Molière flying through the air, heaved into a dungeon’s pile of straw.

Maybe a victim of American angst with subtitles, bad memories of high school English class and stereotypes that historical film biographies are dull, 40-year-old French director Laurent Tirard’s second feature was not the stateside summer comedy hit it deserved to be. Now on DVD, this funny and winning little film gets another chance to shine.

Molière arises – much like Shakespeare in Love (1998) and last year’s couple of Jane Austen movies – from a missing chunk of time in the 17th century playwright’s résumé and the invention of events that, inserted with some mysterious lost love into that gap, explain his career. This way of accounting for art has its enemies; it can be formulaic, sentimental and, when you think about, it suggests that an artist’s imaginative reach is really not so powerful after all. But Molière has abundant redeeming qualities.

Tirard makes this dead white European male – he calls his approach “anti-rock star” – worth getting to know. Molière was just 22 in 1644 when he went to debtors’ prison and then disappeared for a while. He had already joined forces with the theatrical Bejárt family to form Illustre Theatre – French audiences likely know that Madeleine is the historical Madeleine Bejárt – the rep company with which he toured southern France, honing his comic stage-craft. As celebrated as Molière later became for his hilarious, biting social mockery in a dozen full-length comedies and other shorter farces, Tirard’s young playwright searches, sometimes clumsily, for work worth doing and for what purpose art has in a society starting to crack apart. US audiences might easily confuse this film’s time frame with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette, but more than a century was to pass between the mutual contempt and envy of this film’s aristocrats and rising merchant class and the savagely bloody eruption of 1789.

Tirard’s ensemble cast is a quiet triumph, starting with Romain Duris as Molière. After 30-some films abroad, Duris’ arrived here in Russian Dolls and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (both 2005); Gypsy cinema fans also know him from several Tony Gatliff films. Fabrice Luchini is Jourdain, the rich merchant who plucks Molière from prison to provide some secret drama coaching – under his wife’s nose (he spirits Molière into his household as Tartuffe, a priest-tutor) – in his far-fetched quest to seduce a younger and more glamourous woman. As Jourdain’s wife Elmire, Laura Morante is a gracious, wise older woman who briefly loses her head over Molière, understands his gift, and sees him a last time when he returns to Paris. Edouard Baer is Count Dorante. His chateau roof leaking, his pockets empty, and his son wanting – scandalously – to “work,” the predatory nobleman sizes up Jourdain as his meal ticket.

The film’s comedy and unexpected generosity toward women provide a window on Molière’s work that may make the playwright’s work more inviting. Elmire may stay in her “place” with her husband, but Molière’s youthful country interlude concludes by turning on his agreement to secure Elmire’s daughter’s happiness in return for his own departure. Tirard lifts and adapts scenes from those later plays that rely on reversals, mistaken identity, perfect comic timing and penetrating observation of others. The funniest explore “acting” itself – on stage (in a marvelous jab at “method” acting exercises, Jourdain plays a dewdrop hanging from a leaf that Molière counters with a spirited demonstration of three horses), as social place and social climbing (Elmire howls when Molière mimics her husband’s pretensions), as unattractive cold deception, as comical bad acting, and as a zestful plot in service of tricking the evil Dorante and saving Jourdain’s daughter from an ill-advised arranged marriage. You might give all of comedy a second look.

This review appeared in the 1/24/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.