Taking liberties with artists' lives in biopics isn't new, but few pull off the invention with such entertaining and self-reflexive brio as director Laurent Tirard does in Molière. According to this imagining, just before the 17th-century comedic French actor/playwright set out for his 14-year tour of the provinces with the L'Illustre Théâtre troupe in 1644, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, was detained in debtors' prison and bailed out by a well to-do merchant, Mssr. Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini). An amateur in all things--he has painting, fencing, and singing instructors--and master of none, he hires Molière to teach him the dramatic arts so that Jourdain can impress young marquise Célimène (Ludivine Sagnier, playing the noblewoman like a Versailles alpha girl) and, ideally, win her favor (hint, hint, nudge, nudge). To hide this plan from his wife, Elmire (50ish hottie Lara Morante), for whom Molière starts to feel some affection, Jourdain tells her the actor is a priest there to tutor their daughter in spiritual guidance, a priest named--wait for it--Tartuffe.
Shakespeare in Love fans can see where this is going: Molière offers a deliciously convoluted romantic entanglement as inspiration for the young actor's maturation into a great writer and the backstories to his satires Tartuffe, ou l'imposteur and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Allusions to the plays abound in the spiraling ruses and secrets--Jourdain and Molière from Elmire, Elmire and Molière from Jourdain, Jourdain's friend Dorante (Edouard Baer) from Jourdain, and more--and some dialogue quotes the plays verbatim. It's a witty enjoyment for the fans of those farces, and straight-up farcical silliness for everybody who isn't.
It helps that comically gifted young French actor Romain Duris plays Molière as a comically gifted young actor. Duris effortlessly inhabited the young man at drift in Cedric Klapisch's follies of youth L'Auberge espagnole and Russian Dolls, and he brings that rudderless energy to his Molière, a man who yearns to be taken seriously and feels his gift for making people laugh is but a trifle. As usual, it takes the love of a good woman to point him in the right direction, but--this being a French movie--a coy series of melodramatic masquerades must be survived first.
And perhaps that little twist of the meta-narrative makes Molière more than just another costumed biopic romp. Aside from the frequent allusions, the movie playfully lets its characters embrace the idea that life demands mini-dramas and performances to move it along just so, that everybody is, at some time or another, playing a role. It's not a new or even daring conceit, but it's so entertainingly batted around by the cast and script that the leitmotif adds more levity and pleasure to an already cheeky two hours.