The release of Laurent Tirard's "Moliere," in close proximity to the U.S. arrival of Christophe Honore's "Dans Paris," should provide further proof that the inexplicably in-demand Romain Duris is one of the most smug, unresourceful, unsurprising, and thoroughly infuriating actors to emerge in recent memory. "Dans Paris" is one brand of prestigiously awful screen acting: precious, grandiose brooding, with attendant beard and dark-rimmed eyes to give the proper impression of seriousness. "Moliere," a flouncy 17th-century costume comedy, would seem on the surface more properly suited to Duris's showy, sharply accented performance style - he gets to don a flowing musketeer mane and moustache, and wryly dissemble his way through a bevy of ostensibly comic misunderstandings. But comic or dramatic, crestfallen or roguish, he's a fussy, preening screen presence who wheedles and ingratiates himself to the camera wherever the tiniest fillip of a gesture might suffice.
The film fits into the speculative biographical fiction genre - a la "Shakespeare in Love," as virtually no critic has failed to observe - taking place within a gray area in Moliere's actual biography, imagining the 22-year-old playwright's misadventures while running amok in 1640s Paris. Tossed into debtor's prison, he's sprung by a Monsieur Jourdain (Fabric Luchini), a well-off bourgeois gentleman who recruits this preternaturally talented young man to give him lessons in stagecraft and poetry, and to offer him criticism on the play he's writing with the intention of using it to woo the lovely young Mme. Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier). Jourdain is, naturally, talentless, and the heap of accreted complications starts to perilously teeter when le jeune Moliere takes a fancy to his employer's overlooked wife (Laura Morante). The roundelay of misunderstandings that follows is apparently an echo of precisely the mounting madness that Moliere's own work is noted for (though such zaniness has by no means absent from contemporary French film: watch enough Francis Veber movies and you may wonder if the grand tradition of the French farce is one worth upholding).
The gilded widescreen photography by journeyman DP Gilles Henry (lenser of maybe the most beautiful French period film ever, Pialat's "Van Gogh") is handsome, and the decor leaves little to be desired. But like any filmgoer, I carry my own set of prejudices into whatever I watch, and so I must admit: there is something about billowy sleeves, bursting bodices, clueless cuckholds, and sloshing hoisted flagons that I cannot take seriously - I'm always put in mind of nothing more than Jon Lovitz's Evelyn Quince hosting "Tales of Ribaldry" on "Saturday Night Live." That skit worked so well because it was dead honest about the transience of comedy; and while "Moliere" may be awfully clever - the script, I am informed, is laced with references to the playwright's oeuvre - funny it most certainly is not. Like so many of its bawdy period ilk, it relies on an enervating, insistent lustiness to prop itself up and reassure the viewer that a good time is being had by all.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.