2½ stars (out of four)
A tiptop theatrical production of "Tartuffe," "The Misanthrope" or another great Moliere comedy offers audiences a banquet of hypocrites, poseurs and passionate, often obsessed characters whom Cupid, or social ambition, has rendered nearly insane enough to forget their rhymed couplets. A film portrait of the French dramatist, therefore, requires at least some of the fire and ice you'd find in an ideal Moliere staging.
And "some" is what you get here. Director and co-writer Laurent Tirard's pleasant but tame approach to his birth-of-a-major-world-dramatist portrait has its virtues. There's an especially ripe performance from Laura Morante, last seen on local screens in Alain Resnais' "Private Fears in Public Places." Morante is a soulful presence, neither frivolous nor grave, and in "Moliere" she plays Elmire, the wife of a rich bourgeois boob (Fabrice Luchini) who solicits the ghost-writing assistance of the young actor and writer Moliere (Romain Duris).
The film is set in 1644, at a time when Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, still in his early 20s, wasn't widely known as Moliere. The story combines key elements of several different Moliere comedies. Dogged by creditors, the young writer's (fictional) wealthy patron desires the ravishing Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier, whose ice-queen vibe practically screams out for a French Revolution). The ruffian playwright, meantime, poses as a man of the cloth named Tartuffe and moves into his benefactor's household. There he becomes smitten with the neglected wife of his patron's household. Before you can say "Shakespeare in Love" the romantic entanglements leave our hero a much more interesting playwright.
Comparisons to that Oscar-winning picture are inevitable. "Moliere" is comparatively even-toned and less antic. It's also duller. All the sprightly harpsichord accompaniment in the world can't make things visually livelier.
Tirard seems most comfortable with the seriousness underneath the comedy. While it's fun to hear a character say "It's like a bad play!" when hiding behind a screen just before someone breezes into the bedroom, "Moliere" transforms into a fuller piece whenever Morante takes center stage. Duris is engaging enough in the title role, even if he's not helped by the way the director and the editor handle sequences designed to display Moliere's dazzling comedic abilities. They're too pushy by half. Morante, on the other hand, finesses the comedy and the rueful bits with equal skill.
Directed by Laurent Tirard; screenplay by Tirard and Gregoire Vigneron; photographed by Gilles Henry; edited by Valerie Deseine; music by Frederic Talgorn; production design by Francois Dupertuis; produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema and CineArts 6 in Evanston. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content).
Moliere - Romain Duris
Jourdain - Fabrice Luchini
Elmire - Laura Morante
Dorante - Edouard Baer
Celimene - Ludivine Sagnier
Henriette - Fanny ValetteCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times