With the ascent of President Nicholas Sarkozy — who jogs, plays at French cowboy, and has a jones for things American — the Gauls and the Yanks have entered a cautious entente cordiale. The coziness in the political arena is echoed on the cultural front this summer by Americans’ love affair with French cinema. This holds true especially for the mainstream entertainments that find distribution here. Viewers can get their French fix without getting lost in arthouse longueurs, or pistol-whipped by such Cannes faves as Bruno Dumont‘s “Flandres,” with its rutting couples and atrocities of war. Now from Sony Pictures Classics comes Laurent Tirard‘s “Moliere,” the latest contender in the specialty market to hit these shores.
Consider the robust performance of Picturehouse‘s Edith Piaf drama “La Vie en Rose” (which has raked in nearly $6.9 million in cumulative box office and a $3,123 average on 174 screens in its 6th week out); Columbia Tristar’s “The Valet” by Francis Weber; and IFC Film‘s “My Best Friend” by Patrice Leconte (a hi-concept begging for a Hollywood remake), which aims to eclipse “La Vie” as summer’s top foreign-language performer. Even Kino‘s art film “Lady Chatterley,” the sublime ground-breaker by Pascale Ferran, showed muscle after a small expansion in its one month mark out in theaters.
“Moliere” sits squarely in the mainstream yet outside the biopic box, Tirard’s second feature takes an ingenious tack in conjuring the creative evolution of France’s master of satiric comedy. History tells us that Moliere — a well-born young man who abandoned a life of privilege for love of a woman and the theatre – was thrown into prison for debt. He then disappeared from the records for several months.
Into this lacuna jumps Laurent Tirard to concoct an elaborate historical fiction. A Monsieur Jourdain (the nouveau riche from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme“) springs Moliere from jail – but on condition that Moliere teach him stagecraft, so he can seduce an alluring countess who favors men of wit. Once installed in Jourdain’s lavish, over-the-top chateau, Moliere falls for Jourdain’s classy wife Elmire (a character from that wicked satire of religious hypocrisy,”Tartuffe“). To justify his presence in the household, Moliere is disguised as a tutor named Tartuffe — a comic irony since the real Moliere hated nothing so much as the religionists of his day. You get the idea: in a kind of hall of mirrors set-up, Tirard’s film introduces Moliere to “real people,” who will later become characters in his immortal comedies.
If all this sounds arty and inaccessible, it’s not. Au contraire, “Moliere” serves up farce, romance, and pathos in a pacey, tightly crafted script that would look foreign to Hollywood execs only because there’s writing on the screen. In fact, lose the 17th century French trappings, and you’ve got the bones of a Studio dramatic comedy.
Inevitably, Tirard’s exploration of a playwright’s creative process invites comparison with John Madden‘s “Shakespeare in Love” – indeed, is being positioned as the French answer to “Shakespeare.” But while Shakespeare is universally known and studied, Moliere, for all his brilliance, retains a peculiarly French insularity. Most of us can name King Lear’s daughters, but – test question: how many of you out there A) could name le bourgeois gentilhomme; or B) even translate the term?
So, despite its high energy, sumptuous production values, and a cast toplined by the electric Romain Duris, Laura Morante, and Ludivine Sagnier, the questions remains, Will American viewers get “Moliere”? During a recent visit to New York, Laurent Tirard – fluent in English, with sapphire eyes that looked rimmed in kohl – discussed with indieWIRE the universality of “Moliere,” his American influences, and the inspiration for a film that stands the biopic on its head.
indieWIRE: You were at NYU film school from ’85 to ’89, and didn’t exactly jump right into filmmaking. How did you make the transition from journalist to screenwriter to director?
Laurent Tirard: In film school, when I was 22, I quickly realized I wasn’t ready to make films. Then as a script reader for Warner Brothers, I realized that the writers of good scripts had one thing I didn’t have: life experience. I grew up in a privileged and protected environment. The little experience I had at 22 wasn’t worth writing about. I decided to make a living writing about films. I worked for Studio Magazine for 6 years.
iW: You can make a living in France writing about film?
T: Well, it’s not the best paying job. All the while I was writing screenplays that got turned down.
iW: How do you weather rejection?
T: People tell you to be professional, it’s just a script, don’t take it personally. But whenever I write a script or make a film, really it’s me on paper, me on screen. When people say they don’t like it, they’re really saying they don’t like me, and that’s hard to take.
iW: What was your breakthrough point?
T: When I started to despair that nothing would happen, a company bought one of my screenplays for TV. The money allowed me to make 2 short films, which I showed to some production companies. One said, if you have an idea for a feature, come and talk to us about it. I wrote 20 pages of a feature and they financed the writing of the script. And then after that, everything went pretty quickly and easily.
iW: What prompted you to make “Moliere”?
T: It all started accidentally when I re-read Moliere three years ago. I was amazed at how brilliant it was. I realized that the kind of comedies I wanted to write he had written 300 years ago. They were psychological comedies with a great insight into human nature.
iW: “Moliere” feels fresh and innovative. How did you arrive at its form?
T: I needed to come up with an idea that allowed me to pick everything that I love about Moliere, and also make a movie that both resembles a Moliere play and uses my favorite characters and situations from his work. And then I thought maybe the main character might be Moliere himself. So it would be a film that looks like a Moliere play but would talk about his creativity. That’s how it became a film about an imaginary encounter between Moliere and his future characters.
iW: Why focus the action on the 6 months Moliere disappeared from public view?
T: I thought, if no one knows what happened during that gap, perfect! I can invent anything I like. [The story] also starts at a crisis point in Moliere’s life, when he’d been trying to perform tragedies, done very badly, and gone bankrupt. He had to accept the fact that he was made for comedy. So everything came together.
iW: Did anything specific trigger your idea for Moliere to meet up with his own future characters?
T: The main influence was Pirandello‘s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” which to me is a play about creativity. The concept of that play — and it’s been used many times since — is for fictional characters to come into the real world and ask the author to talk about them.
Thinking about that play, I said: Okay, the movie will begin in the real world, until Moliere’s thrown into debtor’s prison. Then Jourdain, a character from “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” hires him under a pretext. Once Jourdain takes him home, it’s really a fictional world, where Moliere gets introduced to his own fictional characters – and Moliere himself must become another character and lie about his identity. Eventually, Moliere is released back into the real world to write about these people. It’s a metaphor for inspiration. I’ve never seen a film that combines the real and parallel worlds in quite this way.
iW: Why did you draw on farce? I’m thinking of how Moliere and Elmire meet cute, when he comes crashing through the window.
T: I wanted the film to have all the different styles you can find in a Moliere play: psychological comedy, tragedy, and farce. He wrote “Le Misanthrope,” one of his darkest, most cerebral plays, and two years later he wrote “Les Fourberies de Scapin,” which is pure farce.
iW: Judging by the influence of Elmire on Moliere’s creative arc, are you suggesting the role of a woman is paramount in an artist’s life?
T: I cannot think of a single artist who wasn’t influenced one way or another by a woman. For Woody Allen maybe it’s his mother.
iW: How is that true for you?
T: Well, it wasn’t one woman, it was many women. At different times, I’d write to seduce a woman, or from the memory of a woman. And in my first film there’s a lot in the main character that was influenced by my wife and how she would read everything I write and be extremely blunt about it. And I’d resent it very much, but then 2 weeks later realize she’s right.
iW: Both “Moliere” and “Prete-moi ta Main,” which you co-scripted, share the propulsive pace of Hollywood movies. How has American filmmaking influenced your work?
T: What I liked about studying at NYU and working at Warner Brothers was that filmmaking and script writing is considered a craft, with rules, a history, and tradition. I find very often in France this notion that you’re born an artist — a bit like in the 1700’s you were born into the aristocracy — and if you have this gift, you don’t really have to study, it comes to you naturally. Often it makes for lazy scripts. And though French films have a soul, they lack rigor in terms of craftsmanship.
iW: Do you admire American mainstream film?
T: More the American point of view that filmmaking is a job, which you learn like everybody else learns a job — and only then can you have your own personality. We all know the downside [with studio films] is that it’s also an industry and makes for a very standardized product with too many people involved. And eventually the films that come out of the studios all look the same. Whereas in France films are really the expression of somebody.
iW: How does “filmmaking as a job” translate into your life?
T: My co-writer and I come to the office every day at 8:30 after we leave our kids at school. We like to say we work on scripts the way other people work at manufacturing watches. People ask, “How can you write with someone else? Writing is so personal.” I say no no no, not screenwriting. Screenwriting has more to do with engineering really. The mechanics of the script. When we read Moliere’s plays we tried to figure out what the essence of them was. We would take each play apart piece by piece, almost as if we were watchmakers, trying to understand the mechanical workings. That I definitely got from this American influence. I do think I got the best from both worlds: American craftsmanship, while in France I’m given a lot of freedom creatively.
iW: Do you like the idea that “Moliere” is being positioned as the French “Shakespeare in Love”?
T: We were thinking of many examples of what we wanted and “Shakespeare in Love” came up. I really didn’t know much about Shakespeare and the film made me want to read the plays. If we can accomlish that with Moliere, then really we’ll have been successful.
iW: Even people here who studied literature in college may not recognize the Moliere characters in your film. Will American audiences get “Moliere”?
T: I’ve been with this movie to Japan, Greece, and Russia, where we got the Audience Award [at the 29th Moscow Film Festival] – and it’s always a big surprise to see how contemporary and universal these characters are. In Moscow they see M. Jourdain, and they say, “He’s Russian.” When you look at Russia today, you have these guys with a lot of money and bad taste, but they want to acquire art. I said to a Chinese distrubutor, “The character of Dorante is an aristocrat and has all these privileges because he knows the king but he has no money. How are the Chinese going to understand that?” And the distributor said, “He’s the bad guy.” So I said, “Okay, it can really come down to that.”
Working with my co-writer we wondered how the aristocracy would translate to a modern audience that wasn’t French. And we said, Okay, if we were making a contemporary movie, what would Dorante and Celimene be? Celebrities. People who have privileges for no good reason and everybody is ready to spend money to be friends with them.
iW: Romain Duris is a somewhat surprising choice to play Moliere. Why did you cast an actor with such a contemporary edge?
T: I wanted to send a message by casting Romain and say, Look, this is not going to be a biopic in the traditional mold. Not in the sense that Moliere was going to behave like a contemporary man — we had a coach who taught Romain how to behave, and we looked at paintings, etc — but there’s something very modern that radiates from Romain that I like.
iW: Which American filmmakers do you admire?
T: This might not be a surprise: Woody Allen, certainly. And Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola – I grew up watching their films. And I like Steven Soderbergh – though I’m not sure about the “Oceans” stuff. There’s a film by Soderbergh that no one saw which was really a turning point in his career that’s called “Schizopolis.” All the things he experimented with in that film were really brilliant.
iW: Is French film generally turning more mainstream and commercial?
T: I think for a while there were directors who wanted to be a continuation of the New Wave. And then there’s been a generation which I’m part of, that started making films in reaction to that. Saying, Okay, auteur films are great, but c’mon, there can’t be only auteur films in France, we have to go back to making mainstream films yet be a little personal in making them. “Moliere” is a very mainstream film, but really I would argue that when I’m talking about Moliere, I’m also talking about myself. The audience will not necessarily get all the personal stuff, but people who know me, believe me, they know how personal “Moliere” is.