The making of an ‘Imposter’

The author of ‘Tartuffe,’ France’s most famous imposter, is given a fanciful treatment of the play’s autobiographical beginnings

Sara Nicole Miller

Every artistic legend of Olde Europe has that “Wonder Years” period – the formative, yet murky times in an icon’s life when their whereabouts are unclear, their trysts and liaisons undocumented, their skills not yet seasoned.

“MoliÈre”

Directed By: Laurent Tirard
Starring: Romain Duris, Laura Morante, Fabrice Luchini
Playing At: Uptown Theatre, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
(612) 825-6006, www.landmarktheatres.com

Molière is no different. The great 17th-century harlequin playwright and comedic scab also seems to have a phantom spot on his earthly lifeline – the era between the beginning of his acting career and the 14-year traveling adventure as head of an acting troupe.

But now, with the release of the period dramedy “Molière,” director Laurent Tirard sends all doubt about Molière’s early days into a sweet recline with a surrealist, Molière-within-a-Molière type of plot-oriented tilt-a-whirl, tossing out those Parisian manners and parlor graces of Molière’s era for a much more characteristic bio-brushstroke: Molière’s lost years playing out much like his quill-scratched theatrical ditties – complete with the kitschy classical music cues and wallop-packing daily social transgressions.

Molière’s formative years, according to the film, begin rather unfortunately. The mustachioed, blossoming Molière (Romain Duris) clad in a flowing brown mane and brimming with pomp and comic sentiments, is thrown in jail for debts incurred by his acting troupe. His luck turns, however, when he gets bailed out of jail by a flaky, aristocrat Monseiur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), on one condition: that the penniless playwright use his talents to help Jourdain win over a mistress.

Soon enough, Molière is swept off to the Jourdain estate, where he disguises himself as a priest sent to tutor the youngest Jourdain daughter. On the sly, he teaches Jourdain all the skill and bravado of the acting profession. His efforts, however good, have little effect; Jourdain has the grace of an elephant and an awkward, verbose penchant for theater marvelously illustrated in an attic scene in which Molière instructs Jourdain to act as a horse.

The wooing of the Marquise mistress comes along slowly, but in the meantime, Molière nevertheless gets caught up in the estate’s more earthly delights namely Monseiur Jourdain’s busty, sharp-tongued wife (Laura Morante). From there, the plot, true to its master’s form, becomes hijacked by a series of character conflicts, forbidden rendezvous and shape-shifters – only to resolve itself in ways unexpected, even for a contemporary audience much attuned to the canned plot lines recycled from early modern dramas.

“Molière” does many things well. For instance, it brilliantly encapsulates the very hairy nature of farce and cut-and-pastes it to a blank spot in his own bio. It also doles out buffoonery and sticky plot twists like a timeless stage parody, brilliantly casting characters commonly mocked in his plays: the cuckolded, idiot husband, or the sultry older woman. Molière especially shines in the film, apart from the fact that he resembles an eyeliner-clad glam rocker.

But at times, even all the trademark comedic ploys – hideous disguises, blatant chiding and tomfoolery – seem laid on a little too thick. Other characters, such as the Marquise mistress, seem more suited for a Renaissance festival show booth, with her fan-waving tea harem’s blandishments seeming at times too infantile and acting 101-ish; even the parodies, after all, require the subtlest of sentiment.

Although haughtily referred to as a “terrible tragedian,” Molière longed to do tragedy. And he spends half the film trying to convince others that the sweet spot of theater lies in a manifestation of tragedy. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the masks of tragedy and comedy are often interchanged – a lesson he learns through heartache and experience. And it is this existential struggle that, in the end, might be “Molière’s” saving grace.

Great big shiny costume dramas detailing an artist’s lost years are not new to the silver screen. “Shakespeare in Love” and “Becoming Jane,” to name a few, have tickled box office sales and added the sugary coating to two already heavily confectionary literary existences.

“Molière,” however, goes one step further, attempting to intertwine the budding fruit of one man’s troubled art into a never-ending charade of folly and theatrics disguised as his life. And since life tends to imitate art most of the time (and vice versa), perhaps Molière’s wonder years were a farce, a tragedy and a classic all their own.