Eamonn Kiernan watches comedy triumph over tragedy in the portrait of the French dramatist

Writer/director Laurent Tiraud’s directorial debut Molière, telling the story of 17th century France’s most famous comedic playwright, is a treat for both mind and eye. Intelligent storytelling, sumptuous set design and costumes, stunning cinematography and a spellbinding cast combine with moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity to make this engaging film stand out from the crowd.

Molière opens in 1658 with the triumphant return of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name of Molière, (Romain Duris - The Beat My Heart Skipped), and his troupe of comic actors to Paris. For 13 years the troupe has been performing in provincial towns and villages across France. Molière has acquired the patronage of the King’s brother and has been given a magnificent theatre in which to perform his comic farces for the Royal Court.

MoliereMolière is now set to perform in front of the audience he has always dreamed of. The only problem is that he has decided that he no longer wants to perform comedy. He longs only to perform dramatic tragedy. Molière feels that whilst his troupe is known only for trifling comedies, he will never be taken as a serious dramatic playwright and actor. But his idea of what a dramatic performance should be is the artistic equivalent of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard!

And so the deluded Molière decides that he will create a dramatic play for his troupe to perform in front of their new patron. We see him, fresh quill in hand, poised over a sheaf of blank paper, awaiting inspiration’s arrival. The scene quickly shifts: it is full night now and the candles on his desk have gone out. His nib is still poised but the paper below it is still blank.

A knock on the door heralds a summons to the house of a mysterious lady. We see a chambermaid emptying a large bowl of blood onto the cobbles outside the house as he arrives. This lady is obviously seriously ill…

The film cuts back to Molière’s troupe the next morning. They are already assembled, anticipating his arrival with their new dramatic play. Molière arrives and hands out his work. As they read their lines, the troupe begins to laugh uproariously. He has written a new comedy.

But why his change of heart? And why did the troupe leave Paris for that extended tour of the provinces? We are taken back 13 years for the truth to be revealed. On this journey we are treated to a scintillating comedy of mistaken identity, love requited and unrequited, romantic confusion and of course the answer to the mystery.

Molière is built around a tantalising gap in Molière’s life. Tiraud spins a tale which entertainingly explains both the extended provincial tour and Molière’s decision to remain a comedian. Duris is electrifying in the title role. As this film elegantly captures the sense of 17th-century France, so Duris captures the essence of Molière: arrogant, wilful, charismatic and above all a natural clown.

The film itself is like a painted canvas: beautiful period architecture and magnificent gardens as sumptuous as the tapestries and clothes on display. But it is the language which triumphs: the wit and repartee of the classic French aristocratic salon is as convincing as the almost palpable stench of the Parisian street.

To put it simply: if you loved Shakespeare in Love, you will adore Molière!

Molière plays exclusively at Queen's Film Theatre, Friday July 13-Thursday July 26.