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In the 20th century, our greatest comedic artist, Woody Allen, was haunted by feelings of insubstantiality. Always a probing thinker, daunted by the inevitability of death and frustrated by love's elusiveness, he yearned to make art "more important" than the comic films which had made him famous. So he set out to emulate his hero Ingmar Bergman and made Interiors and later the even chillier September and Another Woman. Who knew that he had a psychological and emotional predecessor in the great 17th century French playwright Moliere? Or, at least, that's the premise of director Laurent Tirard's new romantic comedy, which endeavors to imagine the formative years in Moliere's life the way John Madden's Shakespeare in Love treated the great English bard in his youth.

Written by Tirard and GrŽgoire Vigneron, Moliere invents a narrative for a 13-year period in the life of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere (Romain Duris), before he arrived in Paris to begin a career that made him the most famous playwright of his time. History knows that Moliere was sent to debtor's prison for a short time in 1644 and that he produced his first work on the Paris stage in 1658. Tirard's movie imagines how he got from the jailhouse to the opera house.

In this fictional biography, Moliere is bailed out of prison by M. Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a country bourgeois gentleman with aspirations to achieve all the graces and vices of a nobility to which he has not been born. He has wealth without title or style and therefore without prestige. So he has hired people to coach him in fencing, dancing and horseback riding, of which he is good at none. He hires Moliere to give him acting lessons, a skill he wants to acquire in the service of his urgency to commit adultery.

Jourdain has taken a shine to a comely widow named Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier) and wants her as his lover. What proper Frenchman with an estate to rival Versailles fails to take a mistress?! Jourdain's strategy for this conquest is to send Celimene increasingly expensive presents with little mash notes of admiration and ultimately to perform for her a one-act play he's written. Moliere is to coach his performance. But, of course, Jourdain is married, and to hide the plot of his desired infidelity from his wife Elmire (the ineffably beautiful Laura Morante), Moliere arrives at Jourdain's estate disguised as a priest named Tartuffe.

Moliere will ultimately write enduring social comedies titled The Bourgeois Gentleman and Tartuffe, and it's the conceit here that his experiences in the household of Jourdain provide him the raw material for the plays to come. But the fun transcends the character models we might spot and the lines of dialogue we might recognize, for the staging of the movie emulates Moliere's work. There are twists and turns, pratfalls and sight gags, all nicely underplayed. The privilege and character of the nobility are deftly skewered in the persons of Celimene and Dorante (Edouard Baer). Celimene is beautiful and bright, but she uses the first quality to draw a crowd and the latter to inflict contempt on those she disdains. Jourdain is all the more foolish for pursuing a person so innately nasty.

Dorante is Jourdain's opposite. He has a title but no money and fewer scruples. He borrows money from a fawning Jourdain with no intention of repaying it and steals the baubles he's supposed to deliver from Jourdain to Celimene. He wants to marry his son Thomas (Gilian Petrovsk) to Jourdain's daughter Henriette (Fanny Valette) because, as he explains with great bombast and no embarrassment, "In this family, one doesn't work for money; one marries it." Jourdain, in turn, shamefully embraces the idea because the union would finally bring his family a title.

The heft of the movie, however, proceeds from Moliere's relationship with Elmire, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Elmire represents the romance, the sexiness, the wisdom and the heart that will infuse the work of his life. Elmire is subject to the enticements of art without ever losing her grounding in this world. Whatever the realities of 17th century France, the world Tirard creates here is one unmoored from conventional sexual "morality." Jourdain is a fool for pursuing Celimene, but the practice of adultery isn't judged. Elmire doesn't hesitate to share Moliere's bed. It is the idea of leaving her family that gives her pause. Meanwhile, she provides Moliere the counsel that will guide his career. "Unhappiness has comic aspects one should never underestimate," she suggests. "Invent jokes about that which makes you weep." When Moliere complains about the ephemeral nature of comedy, she objects. "Make them laugh," she says. "The rest will come with time." Moliere wrote comedy infused with heart, and it has endured. Woody Allen's best comedies will enjoy the same fate, long after Interiors has been forgotten.

Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier) is unaware of Moliere's (Romain - Duris) role in her seduction. - 2007 SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

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