Moliere (2007), the Movie
Bill Long 4/13/08
An Imaginative Way to Fill A Gap
Trying to follow in the footsteps of John Madden's award-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), Director Laurent Tirard has given us a speculative but alluring interpretation of Moliere's life in the summer of 1645 after he was released from debtor's prison and before he went into the countryside with his acting troupe for a dozen years. The story is well-told and the acting, especially of the inept but fabulously wealthy merchant who rescued Moliere, Mr. Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini) and his sensuous but neglected wife Elmire (Laura Morante) is engaging. The basic "point" of the film is that the fast-paced events of Moliere's life while residing at Mr. Jourdain's estate actually provided the spark for him to reconceptualize his art and to become the greatest French comedic dramatist. This reconceptualization was aided especially through the encouragement of Elmire, with whom Moliere had madly fallen in love, when she encouraged him to present in his plays a humorous "take" on the natural events of life. While the movie lacks the dramatic punch of Shakespeare in Love, it provoked me to study a little bit of Moliere's life. Here is what I found.
The Periods of a Life (1622-1673)
Moliere's life can be neatly divided into three periods. The first, lasting from birth to 1645, consisted of his education, including a law degree and the beginnings of his thespian interests. He formed a number of theater troupes in the 1640s, only to see them fail miserably. Why? Because he was trying to imitate the "grandeur" of the contemporary French playrights as they dealt with themes tragic and epic. This just didn't seem to "work" for Moliere, but he persisted nevertheless. Accumulating fairly massive debts as well as the enmity of some of the cultivated classes (including the Church), Moliere's concluded this period of his life as a failure. Pure and simple.
Then, we know of a 12-year period from 1646-58 in which he decided to leave Paris with his troupe and to travel in the countryside, trying to hone his acting and directorial skills and beginning to develop the comedy for which he would later be well-known.
In 1658 his troupe returned to Paris and played before King Louis XIV. His first play was another tragedy, which he was encouraged to perform by the king's brother, at least this is the way it is presented in the film. The tragedy flopped, but Moliere had a second opportunity to present something closer to his heart. The resulting piece, The Precious Maidens Ridiculed (1659) then launched him on a theatrical journey that saw him publish almost one major comedy per year until his death in 1673. Key to his success were his refinement of the Italian commedia dell'arte themes and techniques. Here is a description of his contribution in a nutshell:
"In his longer comedies, Molière immensely refined the commedia themes and techniques, setting most of his plots in and around Paris and raising neoclassical French comedy to a plane of artistry and inventiveness never attained before or since. He applied the alexandrine , or rhymed hexameter line -- borrowed from contemporary tragedies, many of which he had staged -- to a relaxed dialogue that imitated conversational speech. He also created a gallery of incisive portraits: Tartuffe the religious hypocrite, and Orgon, his dupe; Jourdain the social climber; Don Juan the rebel and libertine; cuckolds such as Arnolphe, Dandin, and Amphitryon; Alceste the stony idealist; Harpagon the miser; Scapin the trickster; Argan the hypochondriac; Philaminte the pretentiously cultured lady; and many more."
Back to the Movie
Now we can understand the "problem" or the issue that Director Tirard was trying to probe. How was it that Moliere, who had ended up as a miserable flop during his first Parisian stint, was able to make such a remarkable "recovery" or "self-discovery" in the period following? Rather than pointing to the experience of traveling in the countryside as the place where Moliere's future character was forged, he points to this fictional event of his living as a tutor of Mr. Jourdain in the person of a priest, Mr. Tartuffe, which provided all the comedy he would need for the rest of his life. The reason why Tirard's "take" on Moliere is endearing, even if fully unsubstantiated in history, is that he is taking a stand, so to speak, on the perennial debate regarding the relationship of art and life. His point is that art imitates life. Moliere's experience at the Jourdain estate, with all the social pretense, the deceptions, the inattentiveness and ineptness of the businessman who would like to become cultured, the insight and ravishing beauty of his neglected wife, and the lengths to which people will go to try to achieve some kind of recognition in a sphere to which they either don't naturally belong (Mr. Jourdain wasn't an aristocrat but would like to have become one) or to keep their image when the glory has long departed from them (Mr. Jourdain's aristocratic acquaintance, Dorante (Edouard Baer) who is impoverished but wants to milk Jourdain for all he is worth).
Many of us wrack our brains to try to find our creative voice in the world. Perhaps it would come much more naturally if we simply lived the life that was before us, without trying too hard. That, indeed, may be the most refreshing message of the movie.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long