This review was written for the theatrical release of "Moliere." 

PARIS -- The starting point for this highly enjoyable costume drama is a gap in the hero's CV. Instead of providing the biopic that the title appears to promise, Laurent Tirard's second feature speculates on what the young Jean-Baptiste Poquelin -- better known as Moliere, one of the giants of classic French theater -- might have been getting up to in 1644, when he briefly vanished from history's radar.

Tirard's suggestion -- in his witty Gallic counterpart to the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" -- is that the fledgling actor-writer-director Moliere (Romain Duris) was on the run from his creditors, holed up in the home of Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy bourgeois gentleman, mining material for what later was to become two of his greatest plays.

With the bailiffs at his heels, Moliere jumps at Jourdain's offer to cover his debts in exchange for coaching in acting technique. Jourdain is besotted with the beautiful widowed marquise Celimene (Ludivine Sagnier)and, encouraged by Dorante (Edouard Baer), a wily aristocrat on the make, has written a one-act play with which he hopes to impress her.

Masquerading as a priest named Tartuffe in order to conceal his true role from Jourdain's wife, Elmire (Laura Morante), Moliere nonetheless forms a romantic attachment to Elmire that is soon reciprocated. At the same time, Tirard develops a subplot in which Jourdain promises to see his daughter, Henriette (Fanny Valette), wed to Thomas (Gilian Petrovsky), Dorante's son, even though the young woman's heart is set on Valere (Gonzague Requillart), her music teacher. Dorante, needless to say, is interested only in Jourdain's money.

The story is worked out in the best traditions of farce, with an array of disguises, concealments and subterfuges, and there are plenty of laughs along the way. The ending, however, is bittersweet. Tirard frames the story with the reappearance 13 years later of Elmire, now dying of consumption. Although she has stayed with Jourdain in the meantime, she has retained her love for Moliere. She now enjoins him to give up hopes of writing in the supposedly nobler form of tragedy to concentrate on inventing a new form of comedy, one that fully explores the human heart.

Part of the fun for spectators familiar with the work of Moliere is recognizing situations and lines of dialogue -- mostly attributed to Jourdain -- that occur in two plays that Moliere wrote much later, "The Bourgeois Gentleman" and "Tartuffe."

Duris, arguably the brightest of the current wave of young French male leads, is excellent in the leading role. Luchini is in his element as the buffoonish Jourdain, to whom Tirard lends a moment of dignity as the story reaches its denouement. Morante too is faultless as the woman torn between a desire for romantic love and adventure and the constraints of bourgeois marriage.

Production design is impeccable. Although the movie does not take itself too seriously, it has some interesting insights into the processes of creativity and the role of drama and repartee in the age of Louis XIV. The dialogue is a pleasure in itself, perfectly pitched between the language of today and the stilted cadences of high society in the mid-17th century.

Fidelite Films, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Wild Bunch
Director: Laurent Tirard
Screenwriters: Laurent Tirard, Gregoire Vigneron
Producers: Laurent Sivot, Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Executive producer: Christine de Jekel
Director of photography: Gilles Henry
Production designer: Francoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque, Gilles Bodu-Lemoine, Pui Lai Huam
Editor: Valerie Deseine
Moliere: Romain Duris
Jourdain: Fabrice Luchini
Elmire: Laura Morante
Dorante: Edouard Baer
Celimene: Ludivine Sagnier
Henriette: Fanny Valette
Valere: Gonzague Requillart
Running time -- 120 minutes
No MPAA rating