Before taking a grand bow on the Paris stage, 17th-century actor/playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (a.k.a. Molière) spent 13 years touring the wilderness of provincial France, where he honed his craft and shored up the groundswell of popularity that swept him into the city. A conventional biopic would probably elide most of this period, which was before the pioneering satirist scandalized the establishment with plays like Tartuffe, but the disarming farce Molière, to its great credit, isn't really a biopic. Certain details are biographical, like the financial troubles that landed him in debtors' prison, and his thwarted ambition to be a great writer of tragedies, instead of being consigned to the more frivolous business of comedy. But the film cares more about capturing the spirit of Molière's work than the particularities of his life during that period, which leaves plenty of room for playful embellishment.
Last seen as a self-effacing pianist in the Fingers remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Romain Duris gives a much broader, more robust performance as Molière, playing him as a natural mischief-maker whose talent for comedy stifles his higher pretensions. When his troupe's financial woes earn him a trip to jail, an extravagantly wealthy benefactor (Fabrice Luchini) bails him out under the condition that Molière give him acting lessons. The nobleman turns out to be a grand fool: He's written a play to impress a widowed marquise (Ludivine Sagnier) half his age, but he's too arrogant to learn from Molière, and too oblivious to recognize the marquise's snooty indifference to him. He also has a lovely Italian wife (Laura Morante) who naturally gravitates toward the raffish playwright while her cold-fish husband cavorts behind her back.
Loaded with lighthearted schemes and farcical elements, Molière mostly succeeds in honoring the playwright through imitation, though the film is devoid of any satirical bite. The most obvious point of comparison is Shakespeare In Love, another non-biopic biopic that communicates nothing substantial about an author, but turns his life and work into a diverting confection all the same. Molière's story probably deserves more than well-appointed piffle, but co-writer/director Laurent Tirard keeps the tone agreeably light and gets wonderful performances out of his actors, particularly Duris, who's a tempest at the film's center. A Molière this good deserves a more substantive portrait, but this one will do for now.