Biopics are notorious for flopping about like landbound fish in their efforts to digest someone’s whole existence in two hours. Director Laurent Tirard doesn’t even bother trying with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière (here played by The Beat That My Heart Skipped’s Romain Duris). Instead, he fries up a ‘What if…?’ omelette, attempting to plug a gap in the 17th-century French playwright’s otherwise well-charted life. Then a 22-year-old failed actor, Molière left no trace of what he got up to in the months that followed his hounding out of Paris by furious creditors.
But if it was half as amusing as this stab-in-the-dark period romp, then it’s safe to say he had a jolly old time. And the way Tirard tells it, he was also gathering every last soupçon of creative mojo he’d need to become the godfather of Gallic satire.
Yeah, right. So this is no Amadeus. But never mind. Tirard’s fictitious approach is fun, frivolous, fragrant… and doesn’t require you to have read a single word of Molière. Sure, you’ll miss the in-jokes and allusions; for fans, this is a feast, with characters, situations and repartee pinched straight from his plays. But the story’s laced with enough romance, suspense, deception, mockery and clever wordplay to make it vastly enjoyable on its own terms.
Pitched as a vaguely tormented rogue, our hero poses as a priest so that he can wheedle his way into a) the chateau of nouveau riche merchant Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) and b) the pants of the latter’s comely wife, Elmire (Laura Morante). There are riotous displays of buffoonery from Luchini (the best bit: Molière teaching him to ‘act’ like a horse), whose craving for status makes him a soft-bellied target for scrounging aristo Dorante (Edouard Baer) and bitchy courtesan Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier).
Duris, meanwhile, brings all of his usual seductive intensity but also pulls off the pratfalling with aplomb. Tirard’s direction is a mite pedestrian at times, but he doesn’t flinch from stirring the sour in with the sweet. The result is a wildly impressive French frolic that no one should need to feel intimidated by.