Laurent Tirard's Molière belongs to the subgenre of fictionalized biopics, which is considerably better than belonging to the traditional biopic genre, now a classification that denotes little more than phony, moldy clichés. Taking its cue from Shakespeare in Love, Tirard's film uses the titular French playwright's life as a jumping-off point for a fanciful tale of romance, duplicity, and acting, Acting, ACTING, imagining the adventure had by the 22-year-old Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière (The Beat That My Heart Skipped's Romain Duris), during a period of months in 1644 when he mysteriously vanished. It's speculation of the playful sort, as screenwriters Tirard and Grégoire Vigneron cook up a wild saga to serve as the eventual inspiration for the writer's Tartuffe and The Bourgeois Gentleman, both of which are born from his unlikely stay at the opulent estate of arrogant fat cat Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), where he finds himself in the middle of various romantic entanglements. Ruses, double-crosses, and covert kisses ensue, all while Tirard casts his legendary protagonist as a kindred spirit of Preston Sturges' Sullivan, convinced that comedy - his natural calling - is merely the ugly, inferior stepchild to tragedy.
It's a belief anyone with passing knowledge of Molière's work knows will inevitably be torn asunder, and one that's firmly opposed by Molière itself, which fervently embraces the author's brand of frothy farce tinged with melancholy. After a brief framing intro (set in 1658) in which Molière and his troupe return to Paris after a 13-year tour of the countryside, the film flashes back to the artist's early days when he was struggling to make ends meet as a two-bit performer. Those lean times come to an end after an accidental bit of Chaplin-esque stage buffoonery gets him hired by Jourdain, who wants acting lessons so that he might perform a ridiculously bad, self-penned one-act play (about Greek mythology) for the gorgeous marquise Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier). This must all be done in secret, however, since Jourdain is married to the sharp-eyed Elmire (Laura Morante), a beauty with whom Molière - posing as a priest named Tartuffe who's been commissioned to tutor the younger Jourdain daughter - soon comes to find himself enraptured, and with whom he begins a clandestine affair that proves one of many tricky situations the young playwright is charged with resolving.
Regardless of his subject's swoon-worthy prose, Tirard's decision to have Duris' Molière look like a Fabio-ish romance novel cover model - long locks, a dashing moustache, and a shirt occasionally unbuttoned to his stomach - is a tad too over-the-top. Otherwise, the director crafts his jovial trifle with proficiency, his pacing swift, his story's humor sharp, and his various references to Molière's famous works light and cheeky. What's missing, alas, is a greater sense of surprise that might keep the film from feeling somewhat rote. This is most problematic with regards to the subplot involving Jourdain's greedy, nefarious acquaintance Dorante (Edouard Baer), a broadly conceived villain profiting off Jourdain's infatuation with Celimene and, later, intent on cementing his bourgeois status by having his son marry Jourdain's elder daughter, who's engaged in her own stealthy trysts with a boy of non-noble birth. Throughout Molière, familiarity is a pressing issue, since its narrative inventiveness isn't quite enough to quell the impression that its myriad complications have been done before, and with slightly more flair.
No fault, however, can be laid at the feat of Tirard's cast, which by and large brings verve to even the most hackneyed of scenarios. Unlike Baer, whose Dorante remains tiresomely two-dimensional throughout, Luchini skillfully employs exaggerated mannerisms (bug eyes, awkward gestures) as the absurd Jourdain without ever fully succumbing to outright cartoonishness, and his restraint bestows a pair of third-act confrontations with a much-needed bit of gravity. Meanwhile, despite his fairly goofy appearance, Duris expertly colors his title character's quick wit with shades of longing, in the process bringing a touch of soulful depth to the generally frivolous proceedings. It's Morante, however, who truly lends Molière its measure of enchantment, her Elmire a complex creature of regal authority, burning passion, and maternal responsibility. One look in her dark, lively, intelligent eyes as she sits atop a post-coital bed wrapped in nothing but a white sheet, and it's all too easy to understand what might have finally lit the creative spark in Molière's heart.