May 2008

Arts & Letters


By Luke Davies
Laurent Tirard’s ‘Molière’

The French actor Romain Duris first came to attention in Tony Gatlif's Gadjo dilo (1997), in which he played the elfin Stéphane, who travels to Romania in search of a mysterious gypsy singer he has heard on an old cassette; he's like Mr Magoo, blithely tumbling through the mayhem. By the time of Jacques Audiard's moody The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005), there was still something of the quirky about Duris; but, in his thirties by now, he also showed how well he could tap a brooding menace. In one memorable scene, a horrifically violent act behind him, he straightens his shirt and wipes the blood off his cuff before entering a concert hall to seek forgiveness through music. Between these films he played the amusingly uptight Xavier in Cédric Klapisch's Euro-comedy The Spanish Apartment (2002). And now, playing France's most beloved playwright in Laurent Tirard's Molière (in limited release), we get to see yet more of his range. He's the enjoyable heart of a film that wears its lightness like a badge of honour but nevertheless possesses a clever, witty script, written by Grégoire Vigneron and director Tirard.

It is 1658, and after more than a decade performing farces in the provinces Molière and his troupe slip unacclaimed into Paris, their carts rattling over the cobblestones. They've dates at the Royal Court; something of the troupe's solid reputation for entertaining has reached the city from afar. But for Molière, the return to Paris after a disgraced exit some 13 years earlier makes him suddenly earnest and self-important. (He would not be the first, and certainly not the last.) To everyone's surprise, he plans to start performing tragedy rather than comedy. This is a problem, as he is stilted and preening when he takes himself seriously on stage, and it's clear that his talent as an actor lies in comedy. "You can't play tragedy," one of his fellow troupers points out. "You stutter. Your breathing's all off."

Duris, a natural clown with a jutting jaw, labile face and eyes which reveal an extraordinary amount at any given moment, is able to convey in his reaction to the comment both a wounded, thoughtful fatalism and self-serving denial. He shoots the piano player, naturally: "It's in the texts. Corneille's plays are not for me." And we know then what is to come. At some point, Molière is going to have to start writing his own plays, and the film will imagine part of that creative impulse.

At the last minute he reneges on the tragedy plan - the thought of disappointing the Royal Court seems to be too much - and decides the troupe will stick, as usual, to comedy. Before we see how that turns out, though, the film flashes back those 13 years. From here we see the circumstances of Molière's fall from grace, and what happened in the missing six months - a genuine historical gap in the Molière life story - before he reunited with his colleagues and began the long haul back to Paris, that centre of the theatrical universe. Thus the film operates as an origin myth of a French literary hero, and it is very much a companion piece to John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998). Both films revel in the same complexities of coincidence and mistaken identity as the comedies written by their real-life protagonists.

By not going down a strictly historical-biopic path, Vigneron and Tirard have given themselves freedom to explore creative frustration as well as its inverse. Duris, because of his mischievous intelligence, helps them greatly in this undertaking; it is never unpleasant to go with his flow, no matter how light the scene. Rather than sticking, in a plodding manner, to what the troupe did over the years of honing their skills, the script imagines a self-contained bubble, as in one of Molière's play. This is dramatically judicious. By concentrating - plausibly or implausibly, as the case may be - on the dime that Molière's greatness turned on, and by allowing Duris to channel so endearingly a character whose talent justifies his obsessiveness, the writer and director have created a narrative that holds us, for all its frothy flightiness.

Duris's Molière is full of insecurities and neuroses, but he is certainly not lacking a sense of destiny. "A day will come," he says, "when people won't say, ‘Speak to me in French,' but, ‘Speak to me in the language of Molière.'" This is disingenuous scripting, but it is also a lot of fun. Duris is enjoyably hammy from early on; the whole film embraces its own hamminess, in fact, with ease. It embraces, too, a ridiculously clean, crisp seventeenth century, blue skies and gilt carriages, servants and salons in a world far from Paris that tries hard to be sophisticated. The homes of the wealthy are like the Marlinspike estate in the Tintin books; the costume design is all pastel and bubblegum; the feckless noblemen strut and preen outrageously like peacocks.

When Molière is hauled off to debtor's prison in 1645, things look grim. "Vive le théatre!" he shouts from his cell, but it is forlorn bravado. In exchange for his release and payment of his debts, he agrees to help a Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini, brilliantly deadpan as a wealthy, clueless twit) with acting lessons, because Jourdain has written a play he wants to perform in order to win the heart of a beautiful marquise, Célimène.

Jourdain is married, and his desire to participate in the French national sport has no moral complexity; it is simply the device which sets the comedy in motion. For he has to find a way of smuggling Molière into the household, without giving the game of seduction away. Thus Molière arrives, dressed austerely in a long black cassock, as a priest who will tutor Jourdain's daughter.

Molière flounders a little in this, his most important role; but if he doesn't maintain his cover and see Jourdain's training through to a performance in front of the marquise, he will be returned to prison. "Just as the body of Christ is in the consecrated host," he says, trying to impress Madame Jourdain with his impeccable religiosity, "so the devil is in the body of the actor." Romain Duris has a lot of fun playing someone skilled at ad-libbing such plausible balderdash. Molière, of course, is falling for the sexy older woman, and the complications of secrecy and desire are just around the corner.

Monsieur Jourdain, meanwhile, takes dancing, painting and music lessons, all ineptly. The campness is overdone, yet it is breezy in its freewheeling idiocy, and it sets up a touching moment later in the film when he will find within himself something resembling substance and insight. Then, humiliated, he will become a sympathetic character who wins our affection rather than merely our laughter. But most of the time he is a complete nutcase, and this suits the film's merciless satire of mores and manners. Duris and Luchini make a fine comic couple, in that tradition of unlikely partners-in-crime putting up with each other for mercenary ends: I was reminded of Robert De Niro, entwined so dysfunctionally with Charles Grodin in Martin Brest's Midnight Run. 

Jourdain wants to perform all the roles in his play, in his attempt to seduce the marquise. Molière knows the situation is completely hopeless, but he'll go through the motions to stay out of jail. The drama-school exercises he puts Jourdain through are excruciating, in particular a ludicrously unbridled scene that revolves around how to play a horse and really "inhabit" the animal. And the film offers another comic joy: the French comedian Edouard Baer, playing Jourdain's dandy friend whose only interest is money. "In this house," he sneers to his son, who wishes to work, "one does not earn money - one marries it!"

The scriptwriters have mined the playwright's works and imagined scenarios in which he might have gotten the ideas for his great comic riffs. Thus the scene in The Bourgeois Gentleman (1670) - between the character Jourdain, no less, and the Philosophy Master - in which Jourdain discovers, to his astonishment, that he has been speaking in "prose" all his life, is condensed to great effect here. Jourdain wants Molière to help him write something like, "Fair Marquise, your lovely eyes make me die of love." Molière suggests the line is pretty clear as it is. Jourdain insists, and Molière reworks the line with linguistic exuberance. "You might ?say, ‘Of love, fair Marquise, your lovely eyes make me die.' Or else, ‘Of? lovely love, your eyes, Marquise fair, me make die.'" On he goes, descending into more and more surreal versions. But which is the best? asks Jourdain. Your first choice, Molière tells him. "Incredible," says Jourdain. "I get it on the first try."

It is pure farce, and we can expect, as in the comedies of Shakespeare and Molière, a restoration of the old order by the end of proceedings. Along the way, Laurent Tirard explores the problem the real Molière wrestled with: how to say something serious in a world of absurd pretence.

"Your pranks are more touching than any tragedy," Madame Jourdain tells him. "No, madame. Impossible," he replies.

Mme Jourdain: Impossible? Why?

Molière: Because comedy - of which you are so fond - relies on mechanical effects. Tragedy explores the infinite complexity of the human soul.

Mme Jourdain: Then play comedies that explore it.

Molière: They do not exist.

Mme Jourdain: Then invent them. 

In this reiteration of the legend Molière does just that, achieving, during his years in the boondocks, what he didn't think was possible. "We must practise our profession," he says, "and the rest will follow in time."

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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