Pre-fame, appalling French tragedian Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Duris) slipped off the radar for a few months. Pursued by bailiffs and imprisoned by his creditors, he disappeared into the countryside and, to this date, historians aren’t entirely sure what he got up to. They know that a few months later he surfaced with his troupe, toured the provinces for 13 years and returned to Paris as the triumphant satirist Molière. Laurent Tirard’s enormously enjoyable film surmises on what might have happened during that blank period.
The imagined story is that Poquelin is released from prison by the wealthy Monsieur Jourdain (Luchini) who needs the actor’s help in stage craft. Jourdain is married to the beautiful Elmire (Morante) but infatuated with Célimene (Sagnier): with the young actor’s help — and the deliberate misguidance of impoverished aristocrat Dorante (Baer) — he plans to woo Célimene by performing a play what he wrote. The actor, on the other hand, is developing strong feelings for Elmire. The problem there is Jourdain’s told her Poquelin is a priest.
The result, with its mistaken identities and illicit bedroom encounters and broadly drawn characters is a bit Carry On Molière, but its also run through with a smart literary vein. There are piles of in-jokes (lines and characters from his plays, familiar scenarios, etc) but, if you’re not particularly au fait with Moliere’s output — which would be pretty much everyone in the UK then — there’s still lots here to enjoy and some well-handled serious moments between the rompy stuff: The ending, for example, is an exquisitely tender twist that’ll wipe the broad grin from your face and replace it with a rueful smile. A lot of fun.