Missing 'Moliere' months may mean 'Moliere in Love'


"Moliere" mystery: Just as "Shakespeare in Love" imagined unknown events during the Bard's life, "Moliere" fills in a mysterious gap in the French playwright's life.

In the case of "Moliere," opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics, director Laurent Tirard has given some thought to what may have been going on in 1644 when the then 22-year-old Moliere was producing and starring in plays he'd written but was constantly being chased by bailiffs for payment of debts. Biographies of Moliere note that after being jailed and released multiple times as a debtor during this period he dropped out of sight for several lost months. Where he went and what he was doing, however, is something no one actually knows to this day.

Taking this mystery as his starting point, Tirard weaves an elaborate historical fiction around it. What he creates is an adventure in which the young Moliere, who thinks writing comedy's not nearly as important as writing drama, meets a wealthy married woman who becomes his muse and inspires him to write the comic satires that make him successful. It's a film that could just as easily have been called "Moliere in Love."

Written by Tirard & Gregoire Vigneron, "Moliere" stars Romain Duris ("The Beat My Heart Skipped") in the title role, Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante, Edouard Baer and Ludivine Sagnier. Tirard, who studied film at New York University, read scripts for Warner Bros. and worked as a journalist for the French film magazine Studio before turning to directing. He wrote and directed his first feature, the romantic comedy "The Story of My Life," in 2004. The following year he co-wrote the French comedy "I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single." "Moliere" is Tirard's second film as a director.

Moliere, whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, lived from 1622-73 and is remembered for writing such classic plays as "The Misanthrope," "The School For Wives," "Tartuffe or The Hypocrite" and "The Bourgeois Gentleman." Tirard's premise is that during the time that Moliere dropped out of sight he not only met a woman who inspired his great plays-to-be, but encountered others who became real-life models for the characters he created. Having enjoyed an early look at "Moliere," I was glad to be able to talk recently to Tirard about how it reached the screen.

"It started with the plays really more than with Moliere, himself," Tirard told me. "Like everybody in France, I had read a couple of them in school. I didn't think much of them at the time. I couldn't understand what the big deal was about Moliere when I was in high school. Then by accident three years ago I read one of them again -- 'Le Misanthrope.' I was astonished by how brilliant it was, I think, in part because in the meantime I'd become a comedy writer myself. When I read 'Le Misanthrope' it spoke to me on a human level, but also on a professional level. I think I realized that the kind of comedies I was trying to write, which I had always thought had their roots in the work of Woody Allen, were actually (rooted) 300 years earlier in the work of Moliere.

"It was like discovering a father or a grandfather that you had never heard of. I found myself very much linked to him culturally and philosophically. I realized there were about 15 plays I hadn't read of his, so I read everything and I wanted to adapt all the plays, which of course was impossible. I realized I had to find a concept that allowed me to talk about everything that I liked in Moliere's work -- all the characters that I liked, all the situations that I felt were really meaningful or funny -- and that I had to reinvent or recreate a play of Moliere's (to make) a film that would look like a Moliere play with all the characters and all the situations that I liked. Of course, the central character of that play had to be Moliere, himself. So that's when I started reading about Moliere and that's when I discovered that he had actually disappeared when he was in his 20s for six months."

That discovery reminded Tirard, he said, "of something I had read about Agatha Christie when she had disappeared and everybody had wondered what had happened to her and had fantasized (about the possibilities). I figured that's perfect. If he had disappeared and nobody knows what happened to him, then I can invent anything I want because I wanted the film to be a fantasy, a sort of metaphor on creation. That's how the whole thing came about."

It brings to mind, of course, what John Madden did in his 1999 romantic comedy drama Best Picture Oscar winner "Shakespeare in Love." Was that something Tirard was thinking about at the time? "Yes, very much," he replied. "When I thought of the concept that would allow me to do what I wanted, which was to talk about the plays of Moliere and use Moliere, himself, as a character, I immediately thought of 'Shakespeare in Love,' which was a process I'd also seen a few years before that, but not as effectively, (when) Steven Soderbergh did a film about Kafka (the 1991 drama 'Kafka,' starring Jeremy Irons and Theresa Russell). He takes Kafka before Kafka becomes (a famous writer) and he imagines an adventure that happened to him that would have inspired his writing.

"The film wasn't very successful, but I liked the principle of it. It kind of reminded me of a very famous play by Pirandello called 'Six Characters in Search of an Author,' where characters actually come to the real world and ask the author to talk about them. That speaks to me very much in terms of what creation is and I liked the idea that Moliere's characters would come and hire him and bring him into their fictitious world and ask him in an indirect way to talk about them."

Asked how he worked on writing the script, Tirard explained, "With my co-writer, we read all the plays, analyzed them scene by scene, dialogue by dialogue, character by character to try and understand what the essence of Moliere's work was. It was almost like we're watchmakers and we're studying the watch (made by) somebody else trying to understand how it works. After we did that we made choices of all the things that were really meaningful to us that we wanted to have in the film. Then we had to invent a story in which all these little things would fit and it had to become something that was our film with Moliere elements in it and it had to be seamless. It was a lot of work!"

Tirard and Vigneron worked on the film's screenplay for a year. "We work on several projects all the time," he said. "The way we work is we talk a lot. We have an office. We go there every morning and sit across from each other and then we talk about the plays. We read the plays out loud. We take down notes. The surprising thing is when we started this film what we were very worried about was the dialogue -- how were we going to make these people talk? Was it going to sound right or not -- because we'd never written that kind of dialogue. What's funny is that after all these months of getting familiarized with Moliere it was like music that had become very familiar to us and when we started writing dialogue, which was only at the end -- we spent months and months constructing the film and talking about it -- it came very naturally to us because it felt very familiar. That was a big surprise -- a good surprise."

When it actually comes to writing such a project, he added, "what happens is for two or three months is we'll just talk about the film. We'll do research. We'll read the plays. We'll talk about ideas we have and just take notes on paper. Then once we have all these ideas we decide to construct the film and we do it on index cards, which we put on the wall so the film becomes very visual. It becomes like a plastic object that we can actually visualize and then we can move the scenes around. On every index card there's a summary of the scene or of an idea. We do that for another three months. But we talk about each scene and what goes on inside each scene.

"Sometimes we act out the scene in our office. My co-writer, Gregoire, used to be an actor and I think probably I'm also a bit of a frustrated actor myself. So we enjoy acting out the scenes in our office. Then once we're sure about the structure of the film we spend another two months writing the dialogue. That goes very quickly, usually. Because we've talked about it so much, it's almost as if we've done the film already." Their screenwriting is done on a computer using Final Draft software.

When it comes to writing pages that Tirard the writer knows Tirard the director will ultimately have to shoot, he observed, "I try not to censor myself. I tend to be a very reasonable person. When I'm writing I always think about whether it's going to be difficult or not to shoot, but I tend not to be crazy about stuff like that. I don't give myself impossible challenges. But for some reason when I was writing (one scene involving a mirror) I had a feeling this was going to be very hard to direct. I thought, 'OK, this is probably an idea that works on paper. I'm sure it's not going to work once it's shot.' And I was actually very surprised that it was so easy to shoot and that it worked so well. I really thought that was a screenwriter's idea and had the feeling it wasn't going to translate well once directed -- and it did.

"The way the relationship works between the writer and the director I find very often, for me, is that it's more the director that's inhibited by the writer. Once I've written something, it's very hard for the director in me to change it or to take a different direction. I think maybe that's why one day I would like to adapt somebody else's script. I would feel freer creatively as a director than I do when I write my own material."

While he and Vigneron were writing did they know who the actors playing the film's key roles would be? "No. I tend not to think about casting when I'm writing," he answered. "I'm very superstitious and I think if you start having the face of an actor in your head for a year and then you send the script to that actor and he says no, then I'm always afraid the disappointment is going to be so enormous that it's going to be hard going to another actor after that. I think of people I know when I write scripts. I have faces that come back from my memory of people I've met or actors from very old films. I can write a script thinking of Cary Grant, for instance, and it's obvious that it's not going to be Cary Grant."

Tirard began showing the film's screenplay to actors, he explained, "about eight months before shooting. We shot in March of 2006 and I started sending the script to actors in the fall of 2005. Very often (when you're writing) your first idea of cast is going to be very predictable. It's always amazing how eventually you will end up with an actor that is totally the opposite of what you had imagined for that part. I mean (take) Fabrice, who plays Monsieur Jourdain (the wealthy businessman who pays Moliere's debts in return for being secretly tutored about writing plays so he can pursue the beautiful Celimene).

"I would never have thought of (the actor) when I was writing because in real life and even in the kind of parts that he plays in France he is the total opposite of that. And when I look at the movie today I cannot imagine somebody else doing the part. But I think if I'd gone to the kind of actor I might have been thinking of when I was writing it probably would have been a little more predictable and a little dull."

Shooting any period piece is difficult for obvious reasons, but recreating "Moliere's" mid-17th Century period with its lavish settings and costumes was particularly challenging. "The good thing about it was because we were not sticking to reality in terms of the story -- we're inventing something that might have happened -- we felt that we could also take some liberties with everything else. In terms of costumes and sets, we started by looking at the paintings of that time and when we didn't like what we were seeing we took some liberties. For instance, the clothes of the time. When you look at the real clothes of that precise time -- that's the end of Louis XIII and a little before Louis XIV -- the clothes are a little dull. It's a lot of brown. It's a lot of black and beige. When you look at them, that's not right for the film. The film calls for something a little bit more flamboyant. For some reason, when you think Moliere you think of something a little more flamboyant.

"So we took liberties. We designed clothes that somehow have the flavor of that period even though if you're being truthful they're not the clothes of that period really. And the same with the sets. I mean, in reality a character like Monsieur Jourdain at that time period being a very wealthy bourgeois would be like all the Dutch bourgeois. He would be dressed in black and would have some really heavy black furniture. But that didn't work. It didn't work for the nouveau riche character that we wanted to see. We wanted someone who had a lot red and gold in his house. So, once again, we took liberties -- never to the point where it's unbelievable, I think, but certainly a historian would be a little jarred by all the choices we made."

The filmmakers did, however, use appropriate exteriors of the period for such locations as the homes of Monsieur Jourdain and Celimene. "All the exteriors we used were definitely exteriors of that period," he said. "That worked fine. We are lucky in France that we have all we need (in terms of period architecture). As soon as you start looking for locations you have plenty. The castle of Monsieur Jourdain is actually a private castle south of Paris. There's a family that lives there. We used that for exteriors (only) because the interior is very modern. We shot the interiors somewhere else. In fact, what appears to be one castle in the film, Monsieur Jourdain's castle, is made of seven different castles. I wanted a certain type of kitchen, which I only found in one castle. I wanted a certain type of living rooms, which I only found in another castle."

"Moliere" came to Sony Pictures Classics, Tirard said, after "they saw it at the film market of the Berlin Film Festival in February. And then they bought it immediately." With its epic period look, great costumes, strong performances and brand name main character, "Moliere" could put SPC in Oscar's best foreign film race if it's designated as France's official entry in this year's Academy Awards. There's stiff competition on the French front, by the way, from "La Vie En Rose," the Edith Piaf biographical drama that has done very well in France and is being released domestically via Picturehouse to excellent reviews and ticket sales. To compete in the Golden Globes' best foreign film category no official designation by country is necessary so "Moliere" and "Rose" could wind up competing against each other in that race.

Financing the film didn't prove difficult: "It was somehow very easy to finance. I don't finance it myself, of course, but my producers financed it very quickly. I think because it was Moliere, because it was a comedy, because there was a very modern approach to it and because there were stars -- you have to have French movie stars to finance a film like that -- it was pretty easy to finance even though it cost €15 million (nearly U.S. $21 million), which is not nothing."

The picture opened in France in January, he added, "and did very well. It's been sold pretty much everywhere in the world and has been traveling to (countries like) Japan and Russia and Israel since January."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 11, 1989's column: "What accounts for the extraordinary success Hollywood enjoyed this summer? Looking back, a number of factors appear to have contributed to bringing about the industry's first $2 billion summer.

"For one thing, Hollywood made movies that people wanted to see. This may sound so basic that it doesn't need to be mentioned, but it's really a key to understanding why things worked out so well. By and large, this summer's product reflected the industry's understanding of what moviegoers were looking for when they did their shopping at the boxoffice.

"The summer films that did best -- pictures like 'Batman,' 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' and 'Lethal Weapon 2' -- were those that were audience pleasers. They delivered the entertainment people thought they were going to get when they bought their tickets. As a result, they created a base of satisfied customers for Hollywood. That, in turn, helped stimulate an appetite for other movies in the market.

"Moviegoers who enjoyed one movie and decided it was worth the price -- of tickets, transportation, popcorn, babysitters, dinners, etc. -- went on to see more films. There also was a spillover effect, as people who couldn't get in to see the blockbusters settled for their second or third choice films playing at the same multiplex theaters.

"It was a summer in which Hollywood discovered the adult segment of the moviegoing audience. In the past, the industry catered to teenagers during the summer and ignored the over-25 crowd. This summer there was a lot of product aimed at adults -- 'Dead Poets Society,' 'When Harry Met Sally,' 'Parenthood' and 'sex, lies and videotape...'

"It also was a summer in which Hollywood discovered the value of appealing to family audiences. Films like 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,' 'Parenthood' and 'Uncle Buck' all benefited from being able to play to adults and kids alike without offending either audience segment. On the other hand, narrow appeal horror films like 'A Nightmare on Elm Street V' and 'Friday the 13th VII' died at the boxoffice...

"Wider release patterns, were, a factor that did play an important role in helping Hollywood rewrite boxoffice history this summer. Not so long ago, films that opened at 1,000 screens were said to have opened wide. These days that's really only a modest launch. Openings at 1,500 to 2,000-plus screens were common enough this summer that they helped make record-setting grosses possible."

Update: As Hollywood waits to see if it achieves its first $4 billion summer, a number of things have and haven't changed since '89. Wide releases are, of course, much wider now. Last weekend, for instance, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" opened in 4,285 theaters and "Transformers" was playing in 4,050 theaters. The spillover effect that used to benefit second-choice films when people couldn't get in to see their first choice movies no longer exists because today's multiplexes provide ample seating capacity for just about anyone who wants to see the weekend's big new movie. On the other hand, Hollywood is still finding that making broad appeal movies that people really want to see is the best way to sell tickets.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.