2007, Movie, PG-13, 120 mins


While the details of 17th-century French dramatist Moliere's life aren't as vague as those of William Shakespeare's, there's still plenty of room for fanciful speculation. For example, biographers concur that on August 2, 1645, the still-struggling Moliere was briefly jailed for nonpayment of debts, and that a month later he rejoined his theater troupe for a 13-year tour of the provinces. The conceit driving this fluffy period comedy is that during those few summer weeks, while in the employ of a ridiculous bourgeois patron, Moliere encountered the comical figures and situations he later mined in his greatest plays.

Paris, 1645: Unable to pay the 145 pounds he and his troupe owe a Parisian candle merchant, actor and aspiring playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Romain Duris), who only a few months earlier assumed the stage name Moliere, is tossed into prison. Languishing among thieves and murderers, Moliere is rescued by a complete stranger: foppish middle-class businessman Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), who bootstrapped his way into a lavish chateau where he hopes Moliere, along with a fencing coach, a painting teacher, and a riding instructor, will help him become a gentleman of wit, preciosity and culture. Specifically, M. Jourdain wants Moliere to help him prepare a witty play with which he hopes to impress coquette Mlle. Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier), a notorious beauty who holds forth at her salon with a biting commentary about anyone who happens not to be present, but whom M. Jourdain desperately loves. To prevent Madame Jourdain, the lovely and intelligent Elmire (Laura Morante), from figuring out what her deceitful husband is up to, Jourdain disguises Moliere as a cleric whom he calls "Tartuffe." The moment Moliere lays eyes on Elmire, he falls in love, but she's too shrewd to want anything to do with this obviously fraudulent holy man who has apparently managed to delude her foolish husband. M. Jourdain's daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette), meanwhile, is also in love — with young Valere (Gonzague Requillart) — but M. Jourdain intends to marry off Henriette to the son of Count Dorante (Edouard Baer), a secretly broke but titled opportunist whom M. Jourdain trusts is also acting as a liaison between himself and Mlle Celimene. In reality, Count Dorante is tearing up M. Jourdain's turgid love letters and using his lavish gifts to woo Mlle Celimene himself.

While none of this is meant to be taken seriously, the premise demeans Moliere's great achievement: He's reduced from his rightful place as a brilliant playwright who created something entirely new out of his era's comedic conventions to a mere observer who needed only jot down what was said and done by others. Director-cowriter Laurent Tirard's screenplay draws mostly on Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, Those Foolish Affected Ladies and above all The Would-be Gentleman, and the effect is a little like a jukebox musical in the Movin' Out (Billy Joel) or Mama Mia! (Abba) mold. It's Moliere's greatest hits, a well-played but ultimately superfluous assortment of your favorite Moliere scenes strung together by a thread-thin plot that emulates, but in no way replaces, the still-sparkling originals. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Life of Monsieur De Moliere
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The Doctor in Spite of Himself & The Bourgeois Gentleman: The Actor's Moliere Vol. 2
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