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If you must, you may regard Laurent Tirard's Molière as the French version of Shakespeare in Love, but I don't see the point of it. Sure, both are movies about young men of the theatre who discover their subject matter - their very careers! - in real-life encounters, a resemblance that, assuming that neither Shakespeare nor Molière is likely to have done such a thing, makes the two films equally bogus. Does that make anyone feel better? I thought not.

If you are unfamiliar with Molière's best-known plays, Molière will not sparkle as brightly as it might. Since not only all French students but even most Francophones are quite familiar with Molière's work, the production team will be forgiven for taking for granted their principal audience's ability not only to spot references to the plays but, more importantly, to experience the tension between the representations of experience in the Seventeenth Century and in the Twenty-First. What would it really be like to be employed by the Would-Be Gentleman? Most of the time, it would not be very funny, but that's exactly what Molière squeezes a good deal of its humor from. The young actor-trouper (Romain Duris) feels very put upon by his employer (Fabrice Luchini), but Molière's wincing and eye-rolling are hilarious because can't believe the extent of M Jourdain's fatuousness. If we can see that Molière is a magpie pre-enactment of bits from Molière's plays, we must recognize as well that the character of the playwright, who of course never appeared as such in his comedies, has been introduced as a player, a new member of the stock troupe. If you can't appreciate how handily and wittily Mr Tirard deploys this conceit (and how French a conceit it is!), then Molière will probably strike you as silly and shallow.

Here is the main story, which is a flashback from the film's frame. In 1545, the young Molière is thrown into debtors' prison. Although a magnificent scamp when it comes to mocking imitation, he is stuck on the idea of being a tragedian, and when he intones orotund verse with unearthly exaggeration, it's no surprise that he is pelted. He is saved, however, by an agent of M Jourdain, a very wealthy gentleman who lives in a chateau near the sea. (One of my favorite jokes in this movie is that while the chateau is full of glittering rooms, the Jourdains appear to take their meals in the kitchen.) M Jourdain wants Molière to teach him how to act, so that he can perform a little play that he has written before the salon of Célimène, a local marquise of the most refined accomplishments (Ludivine Sagnier). Since M Jourdain's wife and daughters live with him at the chateau, Molière asks how his presence is to be explained. This lands him in a clergyman's cassock.

Already, elements of three of Molière's most famous plays, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (M Jourdain), Les Précieuses Ridicules (Célimène), and Le Tartuffe (Molière introduces himself to the highly skeptical Mme Jourdain [Laura Morante] as "M Tartuffe," letting the name roll off his tongue with great comic verve). The allusion to the last play is particularly cheeky, because of Molière, like his famous hypocrite, is under his patron's roof on false pretences - only the pretences are entirely different. Mme Jourdain's first name is Elmire, and she is the heroine of the central story just as Elmire is in Le Tartuffe. Célimène's name and salon also evoke Le Misanthrope. Molière is not long at the chateau, moreover, before he has to deal with a local notable, Dorante (Édouard Baer), who, when M Jourdain reminds him that he owes the merchant 15,800 livres, has the nerve to extend his open palm with the suggestion that, if it's no inconvenience to M Jourdain, they ought to round it out to sixteen thousand - a funny bit lifted straight from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

The five principals are simply magnificent. Fabrice Luchino is to be commended for infusing the part of M Jourdain with the pathos that Michel Serrault gave to Albin in the Cage aux folles movies. Romain Duris lends all of his scampy brio to Molière, and he continues to amaze with his ability to pass from satire to dead-serious in a heartbeat. Laura Morante is very beautiful, very pert, and her performance is not without a note of the Marschallin. Édouard Baer plays Dorante with perhaps too open a contempt for the Third Estate even as he milks it. As for Ms Sagnier, she's delicious, Sarah Jessica Parker as reconceived by Fauchon. The three comprimario roles are well played by Fanny Valette (Henriette Jourdain), Gonzague Requillart (Valère), and Gilian Petrovski (Thomas). Not to be overlooked is veteran Philippe du Janerand as Bonnefoy, the sly agent who puts everything together for M Jourdain.

About halfway through the film, I noticed that I wasn't checking out the subtitles. The French that I learned in school was pretty much la langue de Molière, which is why I'm so hopeless in everyday conversation, but at least I could savor the tone and cadence, lambent in the screenplay, of a clearly classical tongue. (July 2007)

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