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August 1-7, 2007

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The Player

'Molière' tries to milk laughs from the life of a put-upon playwright

By Richard von Busack

TRYING TO MAKE a turbulent entertainment out of a writing life, Molière delivers yet another lesson that those best known for their humor are depressed, put-upon wretches. Historian Will Durant claims that Molière's unhappiness was that he was born to suffer tragedy, not to play it. The playwright was an upholsterer's son who almost inherited the job of dealing with the king's bedchamber: "Molière might have been known to history—if at all—as the man who made the king's bed," Durant supposes. Certainly, Molière spent his talent making the nobles and the gentry cozy, softening the painfully hard contradictions in life. In his time, preaching morality in public, while escaping its discomfort in private, was almost as important a matter as it is now.

Director Laurent Tirard's fictionalized account of Molière's life begins with his 1644 bankruptcy arrest. Tirard posits that Molière (Romain Duris) was forced into becoming the tutor for a wealthy bourgeois called Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini); the merchant wants to use borrowed wit to charm a heartless marquise (Ludivine Sagnier, who is not as tantalizing as one might imagine). Meanwhile Jourdain's neglected wife, Elmire (Laura Morante, who is much more like it—such fine brown eyes, and such regal carriage), leans upon the advice of "Fr. Tartuffe," as Molière disguises himself. The lady of the house comes to appreciate both Molière's sympathetic ear and his wandering eye.

The template here is Shakespeare in Love, but without the aid of Tom Stoppard. Plentiful quotes from the best of Molière's situations occur. There are two angles on Molière, and it's possible to hold them simultaneously, despite how clumsily Tirard juggles them. Although plagued with personal sorrows, Molière advanced humanism by giving us the figure of Tartuffe, the very image of mankind's greatest pest, the religious hypocrite. The other is that Molière was a hapless tool, forced by money worries to write comedies that ran against his view of life. The anecdote that the playwright was a terrible tragedian forced into comedy is demonstrated by Duris, who is seen powdered white and moaning like a Noh theater ghost, performing a scene from a Cornielle play.

Tirard stresses the melancholy by having an essentially unfunny man playing the playwright. The humorlessness is repeatedly demonstrated in rapid-fire gags and dreadful physical comedy. Duris looks like a pirate, with his dashing hair and his hard false grin, but the movie won't leave him a hero. Molière includes realism right where you don't want it—for example, when dealing with his patron, the king's brother, "Monsieur" (a far more interesting historical character than you'd know from this cameo), Duris demonstrates not only how to bow but also how to scrape. The paralysis of costume drama sinks in, and one starts to think of Louis B. Mayer's command to his producers not to make any more of "those movies where people write with feathers." Worse in is Tirard's postmodern anticness; as in the staging of Feydeau in Avenue Montaigne, the scenes of Molière's work are played in heavy falsetto. The broad acting doesn't give much of a sense of who Molière was and what was inside of him.

Movie Times Molière (Unrated; 120 min.), directed by Laurent Tirard, written by Tirard and Grégoire Vigneron, photographed by Gilles Henry and starring Romain Duris, opens Aug. 3.

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