Molière in Love

Imagining what fanned a French funnyman's farce.

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Molière French playwrights Tartuffe Directed by Laurent Tirard; Written (in French, with English subtitles) by Tirard and Grégoire Vigneron; Starring Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante, and Ludivine Sagnier; Rated PG-13; 120 minutes; Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre
Romain Duris: He takes comedy seriously.
Romain Duris: He takes comedy seriously.
Like many geniuses of comedy, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, France's preeminent 17th-century playwright, always seemed like a trapped tragedian. But Molière, as Poquelin was better known, didn't pursue that vanity. Lucky for us. Had he, the world would have been bereft of some of theater's greatest pomposity-busting satire.

Historians have never solved the mystery of Molière's temporary disappearance early on in his career. But in Molière, director Laurent Tirard fills the gaps with an imagined sojourn of the cash-strapped, fledgling artist -- played by an awkward Romain Duris -- on the estate of a dopey blueblood named Jourdain. Portrayed by the incomparable Fabrice Luchini, Jourdain attempts to rope Molière -- who's disguised as a priest and assuming the name "Tartuffe" -- into impressing a tart-tongued courtesan named Célimène, played by Ludivine Sagnier. This imagined sequence, of course, lays the groundwork for Molière's most famous farce, Tartuffe.

Tirard unwinds the action slow and steady, which makes for a slackly paced first hour that all but destroys the movie. But hang in, and you'll see the method in this seemingly perverse strategy: The young blade grows a passion for the highly strung, cultivated lady of the house, Elmire, who is beautifully played by Laura Morante, Europe's reigning queen of barely suppressed hysteria.

In the end, Molière is as much about the making of a patroness as it is about the gestation of artistic form. It is, of course, the woman in his life who eggs on the callow playwright, pushing him to reinvent comedy as serious business with a powerful moral core.

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