Like many geniuses of comedy, Frances’s pre-eminent 17th-century playwright always felt like a tragedian manqué, a vanity that, had he pursued it, would have left the world bereft of some of theater’s greatest pomposity-busting satire. Historians have never solved the mystery of Moliére’s temporary disappearance early on in his career, but director Laurent Tirard fills the gap with an imagined sojourn of the cash-strapped fledgling artist (an awkward Romain Duris) on the estate of a dilettante dope of a blueblood (the incomparable Fabrice Luchini), whose attempts to rope “Monsieur Tartuffe” into impressing a tart-tongued courtesan (Ludivine Sagnier) lay the groundwork for Moliére’s most famous farce. Tirard unwinds the action slow and steady, which makes for a slackly paced first hour that all but destroys the movie. Hang in and you’ll see the method in this seemingly perverse strategy, as the young blade grows a passion for the highly strung, cultivated lady of the house, beautifully played by Europe’s reigning queen of barely suppressed hysteria, Laura Morante. In the end,
Moliére is as much about the making of a patroness as it is about the gestation of artistic form, for it’s she who eggs on the callow playwright to reinvent comedy as serious business with a powerful moral core.