By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 19, 2007
When French filmmaker Laurent Tirard was a schoolboy, studying 17th-century playwright Molière was like taking medicine. Mandatory medicine, since French is often called "the language of Molière," and the legendary Comedie Francaise in Paris is known as the House of Molière.
"I thought it was old-fashioned, boring," says Tirard, the admittedly unlikely writer-director of "Molière," which opens here Friday. "All I cared about was 'Star Wars.' "
Tirard, 40, changed his mind only four years ago. That's when he learned that the author of "The Misanthrope," "Tartuffe" and other masterpieces of world theater influenced some of his favorite recent movies -- the films of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui ("The Taste of Others," "Look at Me"). "They write these amazing contemporary comedies," Tirard says. "And they said basically everything they wrote, they took from Molière. I thought, 'Molière? Really?' "
From there it was a hop and skip to his film "Molière," Tirard's Gallic doppelganger of "Shakespeare in Love." The fanciful movie exploits a curious blank spot in the playwright's bio: After a brief stint in jail, the young actor-writer disappeared for several weeks.
What happened? Tirard and co-writer Grégoire Vigneron imagine the struggling, deeply serious thespian (played by Romain Duris) being bailed out by a rich philistine who wants lessons in culture and love. Freely borrowed from Molière's works, especially "The Would-Be Gentleman," high jinks and romance ensue, inspiring some of the world's most enduring comedies.
Molière is so ingrained today on French stages that Colette Roumanoff, producer and director of her own troupe in Paris, has eight of his plays running in rep (except this month, when the entire country is on vacation).
Roumanoff, speaking from Provence, says, "Molière is a national glory, the best-known, best-loved French writer. The theaters in Paris, when they don't know what to play, they play Molière because they know the theater will be full for months."
Molière's a theatrical staple here, too -- but is this appeal appreciated by American audiences? "Not at all," says local playwright John Strand, who lived in Paris for 10 years and has adapted European plays for Shakespeare Theatre Company (the well-received "Lorenzaccio") among other venues.
Foreign titles can be a hard sell, but Strand also thinks Molière's rambunctious roots in improvisation and boulevard comedy are often forgotten -- as is the fact that Molière was an acclaimed actor who usually played the leading roles in his shows.
"He's received as more restrained," says Strand, whose version of Molière's "The Miser" for Arena Stage aggressively set the play in the "greed is good" 1980s. "Maybe it has to do with the wigs and high heels and embroidered jackets."
In France, Roumanoff sees Molière played in jeans and dour attitudes. "The fashion now is to make Molière not so funny as it is," she complains. "Lots of people are doing Molière very sad, very dark, in black costumes. I think it is a very bad way. In the film, Molière is full of life and energy."
Too much life and energy for purists, it seems. Tirard reports that critical reaction in France was mixed (though box office appears to have been good) and that the opinions rumbling out of the great Comedie Francaise were skeptical.
Tirard, reflecting in a Georgetown hotel room, explains, "I was this unknown who had made one film and suddenly decided to take on Molière," he says. "I think they didn't like that."
Tirard came to the United States in 1985, studying filmmaking at New York University, followed by a year in Los Angeles reading scripts for Warner Bros. producer Joel Silver before returning to France. So perhaps it's not surprising that he defends the license he took in "Molière" -- from anachronisms in the design to the incredible notion that Molière somehow lived his great plays before writing them -- by citing imaginative big-budget biopics such as "Amadeus" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
Roumanoff isn't surprised that French feathers were ruffled. "These French people, they like to criticize anything," she scoffs. "But I like it very much."
Strand suggests that perhaps criticism is falling along the cultural fault lines in contemporary France if Tirard geared his film "to the people in the banlieu" -- the politically charged urban outskirts in France -- "rather than the box seats of the Comedie Francaise."
But Tirard says he made "Molière" for everyone by exploring the universal theme of an artist finding his voice.
Consistent with Molière's biography, one of the playwright's biggest struggles is internal: He longs to be a great tragedian, but his gift is for comedy. It sounds like "Sullivan's Travels," the 1941 film classic about a successful but brooding movie director who thinks he's above the funny stuff.
Not that Tirard was inspired by that: "I talked with a screenwriter in June, and he said, 'Some people think Preston Sturges is the American Molière.' And I said, 'Who is Preston Sturges?' So I will definitely go home and see 'Sullivan's Travels.' "