Following his bliss

Ponderous tribute to a comic genius

Published: Jan 15 2022, 01:01:am

Sunday, July 18, 1982

MOLIÈRE. Music by René Clemencic. Written and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. Running time: 255 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. classifier's warning: occasional suggestive scenes and violence. In French with English subtitles.
ALONG WITH ENGLAND'S SHAKESPEARE and Germany's Goethe, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is considered one of the theatre's great treasures. Known to the world as Molière, he is considered the master and the creator of French comedy.
    Born in 1622, the historic Molière grew up in the Paris of Richelieu, the same Paris that is the setting for Alexander Dumas's The Three Musketeers and, of course, director Richard Lester's spirited Musketeers movies.
    It's a shame that Lester (or someone like him) wasn't involved with the 1978 motion picture Molière. That assignment went to Ariane Mnouchkine, a French stage director more interested in mounting a pageant than telling a story.
     Her overlong feature, jointly funded by French and Italian television, is designed for audiences with more than a passing interest in the life of Molière, and the look of Louis XIV's France.
    Molière, as written by Mnouchkine, is not a particularly attractive figure. During the film’s first half, Frédéric Ladonne plays the child Poquelin as a mama's boy and a brat. On the day of Mme. Poquelin’s death, he sees a troupe of Italian players in the street and knows his destiny.
    A well-born commoner, the adult Poquelin (Philippe Caubere) rejects his father's trade. He marches off to the university to study law, dropping that when love enters his life in the form of actress Madeleine Béjart (Joséphine Derenne), a woman seven years his senior.
    In Part Two of the film, Molière emerges as a 17th-century Warren Beatty. He acts, writes, produces and directs, convinced that he knows more about everything than anyone else.
    He rails against hypocrisy and, of course, gets it on with most of his leading ladies. Eventually, at 40, he marries the 19-year-old daughter of his first mistress.
    Despite a richness in costume and setting, Mnouchkine's Molière unfolds with a ponderousness that recalls Frank Cassenti’s 1978 film La Chanson de Roland. Her script assumes that the audience is familiar with Molière's works and the various historical personages who drift in and out of the story.
    With a running time of 255 minutes, her film also presupposes an audience with considerable stamina. It might have been less of a chore if she had managed to catch some of the wit that made the name Molière famous.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1982. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: So why isn’t the name Molière better known among sophisticates today? Probably because we are having this conversation in English, within the confines of an Anglosphere made up of English-speaking nations. Shakespeare (1554-1616), who died at the age of 52, is our guy. In our world, he is theatre’s (and, by extension, literature’s) ranking genius. Among the great paradoxes of the 21st century is the fact that as our ability to interact with the global community increases, we’re seeing a great retreat into traditional cultural comfort zones.
    The same is probably true of the Francosphere (or la francophonie), those 88 nations that have spoken French since Europe’s age of empires. Molière (1622-1673), who died at the age of 51, is their guy. Indeed, scholars and statesmen often describe French as “the language of Molière.” A bad boy artist, Molière’s biography is arguably a lot more fun than that of the British bard.
    In the absence of much by way of evidence, Shakespeare fans have had to make it up. Writer Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) was a wonderful invention, as was the 2016 BBC-TV sitcom Upstart Crow. By contrast, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s turbulent tale is a matter of historical record. Their guy, celebrated today as a pioneer of theatrical satire, had his works banned by church and state.
     Both 1664’s Tartuffe, the story of a pious fraud who preys upon his wealthy patron, and 1665’s Don Juan ran afoul of court censors for their controversial content. It’s also been noted that Molière was the first modern writer to have his sex life the subject of press scrutiny. His death, following a performance as Argan, the title role in The Imaginary Invalid, was as dramatic as his life.
    In recent years, Molière has shown up as a principal character in La Roi danse (The King Is Dancing), Belgian director Gérard Corbiau’s 2000 look at the life of Louis XIV’s court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, and in Laurent Tirard’s 2007 Molière. Fictionalized in the manner of Shakespeare in Love, the new picture received mixed reviews, though the consensus suggests that it was more fun than Ariane Mnouchkine's bladder-testing epic. This evening (January 15) in Paris, the Comédie-Française (a.k.a "La Maison de Molière") will kick off this anniversary year with a restored version of his still stingingly satirical Tartuffe.