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The film opens with Moliere (Romain Duris) returning to Paris after successfully touring the provinces with his farces. Now faced with an opportunity to perform for royalty, Moliere feels the need to perform a tragedy, which he apparently loved more than doing farce. But everyone urges him to do what he does best--a farce. This prompts the film to jump back in time some thirteen years to when Moliere was on the run from creditors, and in danger of serving prison time for the debt. But then fate steps in and he's hired by Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy bourgeois gentleman in need of assistance in winning the affection of a beautiful marquise (Ludivine Sagnier). Moliere assumes the name Tartuffe (which would later be the name of one of his most successful plays) and the identity of a priest so that he can work with Jourdain and not incur the suspicions of Jourdain's wife Elmire (Laura Morante).

At Jourdain's home, however, Moliere discovers all sorts of family intrigue. Elmire feels neglected and soon warms to the attentions of Moliere's Tartuffe. She's also trying to protect her daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette) from an arranged marriage to the son of the gold digging Count Dorante (Edouard Baer in the film's funniest performance) so that the young lady can marry her sweetheart Valere (Gonzague Requillart). Meanwhile, the married Jourdain wants nothing more than a favorable reception with the marquise that Dorante is supposedly trying to arrange.

Moliere (Sony Pictures)

Tirard shows us a Moliere who is genuinely falling in love with the smart and elegant Elmire. Yet he's also making mental notes of all that's going on. Whether he realizes it or not, he's tucking away all the information about his experiences for what will become two of his greatest plays, Tartuffe and The Bourgeois Gentleman. For those familiar with Moliere's work, they will notice lines from his plays given to characters such as Jourdain, and situations from his plays presented as part of Moliere's life. This allows for some inside humor but also keeps the film in the awkward position of trying to be both a biography and a Moliere farce.

Tirard has come up with a genuinely fun and playful approach to one of literature's wittiest and most clever observers of human behavior. Tirard conveys some of that fun but he never manages to capture the brilliance of Moliere's work. The mistake many people make is that farce is easy but in reality it is one of the trickiest things to pull off. Farce requires a very delicate and absolutely precise balancing act. Knowing just how far to go in making fun of subjects and what tone to employ is vital to success. Tirard sometimes seems to confuse slapstick--pratfalls and bumping into furniture--for farce and that's a mistake. Pace is also key to making farce work and Tirard has too slow a pace to make his comedy soar. Plus he makes his characters too real and sympathetic to justifying the skewering they are about to receive.

Moliere (Sony Pictures)

Occasionally, Tirard captures Moliere's gift for mimicry and comedy but these scenes are too few. Duris, who did well in The Beat that My Heart Skipped, seems uncertain of tone. He takes pratfalls surprisingly well but doesn't reveal the depth or soul that Moliere needs to have to be a great artist. Morante is lovely and charming as Elmire while Luchini is buffoonish yet sympathetic as Jourdain. Yet none of them reveal a gift for farce , but that could be the fault of the director who doesn't offer them the guidance needed to make this film work.

Moliere (rated PG-13 and in French with English subtitles) takes the intriguing idea of trying to tell a story about Moliere's life as if it were one of his farces. The underpinnings are all there but Tirard does not have the skill or the wit to pull his clever concept off with style. With the exception of a bittersweet framing device, the film serves up a diverting comedy that really has nothing to say about Moliere the man or his art. Moliere would have never wasted an opportunity like this to say something, and to say it with sly, elegant wit.

A more dramatic and more successful portrait of Moliere was created by Ariane Mnouchkine for French television and a variation of it was released as a four-hour film in the U.S. called Moliere .

Companion viewing: Tartuffe (with Gerard Depardieu in the title role), Moliere (1978) -----