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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The joke's on who?
Moliere plays fast and loose with the facts.
Moliere plays fast and loose with the facts.

I was still trying to recover from Becoming Jane, where Jane Austen gets turned into one of her characters, and now here's Molière, where pretty much the same thing happens to France's greatest playwright. With no letters, diaries or memoirs to work with, Molière's biographers have had to comb the plays for clues to his personality. But French director Laurent Tirard and his scriptwriter, Grégoire Vigneron, haven't stopped there. They've used the plays to fill in one of the major blanks of Molière's life - the time early in his career when he briefly disappeared from sight, subsequent to having spent a spell in a debtor's prison. There would follow 13 years of playing the provinces with his theatrical troupe, the Illustrious Theater Company, after which he would return to Paris and assume the mantle of France's greatest playwright. But what happened during that short interregnum, that strange interlude?

What happened is that Molière forged his artistic soul as a writer of comedies by unconsciously starring in one. Or so Tirard and Vigneron would have us believe. Taking its cues from Shakespeare in Love, Molière plays fast and loose with the facts, having the young playwright take up residence at the chateau of Monsieur (Fabrice Luchini) and Madame (Laura Morante) Jourdain. It's Monsieur Jourdain, a fatuously wealthy merchant, who's hired him, ostensibly to tutor the Jourdains' daughter but in fact to help Monsieur Jourdain woo a mistress. And before you can say "l'amour fou," Molière (Romain Duris) himself has acquired a mistress, none other than Madame Jourdain. Except she thinks he's a priest named Tartuffe, and she despises him at first. And to tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure why she changes her mind. That's what happens when wackiness ensues, I suppose. You lose track of where you are.

It's also what happens when a script isn't carefully worked out, and the one for Molière should perhaps have been put through another draft or two. Molière's own scripts could be a little rough, but he made up for it with the sharp facets of his dialogue, the jokes sprung like traps. But the jokes in Vigneron's script don't spring. In fact, they barely register as jokes. To make matters worse, Duris seems strangely miscast as Molière, un homme du thétre if there ever was one. Where's the comic invention that Molière, a zany from way back, must have sprayed on everybody within spitting distance? Duris, who's got the requisite Three Musketeers hair and mustache, makes a noble attempt, but he just doesn't seem to feel it in his bones. Paradoxically, that only reinforces the movie's theme, which is that humor is just as difficult to pull off as pathos - or, as they used to say, "Dying's easy, comedy's hard." This one's DOA.

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