If I was a lazy writer and you were a lazy reader, we could get this one over in a sentence: Molière is the French Shakespeare in Love. If that sounds unfair then consider–it’s a witty comedy drama about a famous playwright falling in love, leading to comic mishaps that in turn go on to influence the plays he’ll eventually write. And it’s French.
That’s pretty much all you need to know to decide whether or not you’ll like it. But, for those who’ve never seen Tom Stoppard’s literary romcom, and for anyone who likes their reviews to be longer than a paragraph… Molière offers a fictionalised account of a time in the titular playwright’s life unknown to official histories, a period of a few weeks that–in the world of the film at least–turned him from talented comedic actor to one of the world’s great literary artists. After a brief introduction set in 1658, we’re whisked back thirteen years to find a young Molière being thrust into prison for failing to pay his theatre troop’s debts. He’s quickly rescued by the wealthy Monsieur Jourdain, but Jourdain’s intervention comes at an unrealistic price–he’s written a one act play to impress the beautiful young socialite Célimène, and wants Molière’s help in performing it well enough to win her love. Further complications quickly ensue–not least Jourdain’s wife, who Molière rapidly falls in love with, and the fact that Jourdain has no chance whatsoever with Célimène, and is in fact being conned by his unscrupulous friend Dorante.
Anyone who’s read a renaissance comedy will have a fair idea of what to expect. There are plots and subplots aplenty, half a dozen romances, and by the end everyone gets what they need, if not necessarily what they want. And of course it’s all cleverly tied in to Molière’s own work, which is great for those who’ve read enough of it to get the many references and in-jokes, though less so for those who haven’t.
There are only a few moments of real comedy genius, most of them towards the end, and in the meantime there are a handful of niggling faults–unimaginative direction, a strangely over-saturated colour scheme, the unnecessary jump between time periods. Compared with slick Hollywood costume dramas, Molière feels just a touch amateurish, more like a TV special than something intended for the cinema.
But somehow none of it matters much. Because the biggest surprise to Molière is that, in a film with great scope to be pompous and incomprehensible, there’s actually an awful lot to like. The cast are great, bringing just enough life to what are essentially stock characters, and Romain Duris is particularly good in the difficult lead role. But even when it’s not being particularly brilliant, Molière is consistently likeable, and somehow that makes it seem better than perhaps it actually is. It maybe doesn’t justify rushing out to the cinema to see unless you’re a particular fan of the playwright and his work. But it’s certainly smart, charming, and funny enough to warrant a night in when it comes around on DVD.