Director Laurent Tirard's exceptionally confectionary French historical dramedy Molière unfolds in the grand estates of 17th-century France, where hedges are as groomed and precise as West Point cadets, language is arch and laced with subtext, and wit flows like rain in April.
Dishy French actor Romain Duris (L'Auberge Espagnole) cops a rock 'n' roll, Johnny Depp-meets-Keith Richards attitude in his squid-tentacle mustache and kohl-lined eyes as France's famous playwright. The film opens with the Molière troupe rolling off a 13-year tour of the French provinces. Like veterans of the dinner-theater circuit upgraded to Broadway, the enthusiastic gang arrives in Paris as guests of the court. But not content to be the king's glorified jester, Molière decides he needs to update his shtick and perhaps leaven farce with tragedy.
Tirard flashes back 13 years earlier when Molière hid out from creditors among the French super-rich and found the forbidden love that deepened his comedy. Molière is harbored by a laughably pretentious nobleman, Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), who promises to pay his debt if he will write love prose for a beautiful courtesan (Ludivine Sagnier).
The premise of Tirard's film comes from the year 1644, a time when historians note that the dramatist vanished from sight. Rather than a biography, Molière is a work of speculative Shakespeare in Love-style comedy about what Molière might have been up to while he was M.I.A.
Tirard's film is presented as a sugary farce about how, through direct observation, Molière essentially skimmed the French aristocracy for its fatty, rich dramatic content.
Anyone watching the movie would be inclined to believe Molière's life was as funny as his plays, an ongoing series of broadly played pratfalls and buffoonery. If the film itself were more enjoyable and smarter, viewers might be more willing to indulge Tirard in that imaginative fiction. But despite Duris' ample charm, Molière is as insubstantial as dandelion fluff, and just as apt to blow away in a strong wind.
Molière, 3 stars. Directed by Laurent Tirard. Stars Romain Duris, Laura Morante, Fabrice Luchini. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Sept. 7. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. In French with English subtitles.