(2007) ** 1/2 Pg-13
121 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Laurent Tirard. Cast: Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante, Edouard Baer, Ludivine Sagnier.

In delayed reaction to Shakespeare in Love, a trend has emerged to sex up the great authors on film with untold tales of romance. Just as young Jane Austen learns about love in Becoming Jane, young Molière gets into romantic scrapes in Laurent Tirard's Molière. Invariably these stories feel bogus, which makes it all the more important that they be fun. Happily, Molière is a lightly amusing comedy that also reflects some truths about the great French playwright.

Taking advantage of a gap in our historical knowledge of the artist, Tirard and co-screenwriter Gregoire Vigneron postulate what might have sprung Moliere to success and, more importantly, whom may have inspired his characters and comic depth. After a prologue documenting Molière's return to Paris with his Illustrious Theatre troupe in 1658, the film transports us to 1645. A grumpy Gus jealous of Corneille, and a comedian who longs to be taken seriously, Molière (Romain Duris) has yet to build his reputation. He has, however, built a debt, and to avoid prison, he reluctantly accepts a job beneath his talents.

The bourgeois Monsieur Jourdain (delightfully buffoonish Fabrice Luchini) hires Molière to teach the elder man dramatic skills, all in his hope of impressing a lady (Ludivine Sagnier). In the meantime, Molière takes a fancy to Jourdain's neglected wife Elmire (Laura Morante, lovely and forte). The jokes don't always sparkle (lines cribbed from the author excepted), but the script busies itself with fancy allusions to Molière's greatest plays. The problem with such an approach is not only that it comes off a bit cutesy--with seemingly every character and situation reflecting its analogue in the Molière canon--but it reduces the playwright's imagination.

But that's the bargain in a comically extrapolated portrait of an artist: like Molière, Tirard and Vigneron are writing what they know. The resulting deluxe tribute to the playwright gets by, surprisingly, as much by romantic poignancy as farce. Here, Morante proves particularly invaluable with a performance both poised and possessed with inner depth. Duris never quite pulls off the same trick, coming off alternately soggy or straining for humorous effect. In the end, it's hard to dislike a picture so in Love with its subject; if Molière sends more youngsters to the books, all the better.

[For Groucho's interview with Laurent Tirard, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 1/22/2007

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Another fine presentation graces Sony's special edition of Molière: clean, sharp picture and sound, and yellow subtitles. Director Laurent Tirard, who is fluent in English, provides a thoughtful, screen-specific commentary with discussion of the cast, production information, and plenty of historical background on Molière as well as the approach to creating a historical fiction about him.

The detailed featurette "Behind the Scenes of Molière" (26:56) includes interviews with Tirard, Duris, Luchini, Morante, Edouard Baer, Ludivine Sagnier, writer Grégoire Vigneron, producer Marc Missonnier, director of photography Gilles Henry, production designer Françoise Dupertuis, editor Valérie Deseine, as well as a wealth of on-set footage that proves a good time was had by all. The cast and crew discuss the film's conception, character motivations, and working on a period film.

Rounding out the disc are previews for The Jane Austen Book Club, The Band's Visit, Vitus, Across the Universe, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains, My Kid Could Paint That, Persepolis, The Italian, The Valet, Damages—Season 1, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition, Look at Me, and Bon Voyage.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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