I have something really exciting for you today, a podcast that gives a unique look into an art form we don’t often get to explore on the OUPblog, film. James Monaco author of How to Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media, Multimedia: Language, History, Theory got the chance to interview Laurent Tirard, writer and director of Moliere, a new film about the famous playwright. To read some plays by Moliere check out The Misanthrope, Tartuffe and Other Plays or Don Juan and Other Plays. To listen click the “play” button below. The full text of the interview is after the break.
James Monaco: The idea is that in a period early in his life, when Moliere disappeared from the scene, he had a domestic adventure that gave him the material for some of his best plays later on. Was that the idea from the beginning?
Laurent Tirard: It wasn’t really. Everything started with the plays, really. With me rediscovering Moliere’s plays three years ago. Like everybody in France I had studied Moliere in school and I was much too young to appreciate it, you know I was probably twelve, thirteen, and I didn’t think much of it at the time, I didn’t realize you know, I didn’t understand why he was being treated as such a great author. I didn’t find it very funny.
And then three years ago, a little by accident I read Le Maison Trap, and you know reading it, at 40, with much different life experience, I realized how brilliant it was, really, and how wrong I’d been about Moliere.
And also, I guess, maybe because in the meantime I’d become a writer myself and a writer of comedy and I suddenly realized the kind of comedy that I wanted to write, today, had already been written three hundred years [ago] by Moliere, probably more brilliantly done than I’d ever be able to write. And so I figured if I’d been wrong about Le Maison Trap then probably about the rest. So I started read all the plays. Loved them all, all of them. I thought really…Well, not all of them because there are a couple really that are not so good, wanted to adapt them all. Which I couldn’t. I couldn’t do fifteen movies obviously. And so I realized I had to come up with a concept that allowed me to take all the things that I really loved from all the plays, all the characters I really loved, all the situations I really loved and put them into one movie and I had this idea of making a movie that would resemble a Moliere play in a way. With all the characters that I liked and then the central character would be Moliere. Very quickly of course I thought of Shakespeare in Love, which was a good example of what I wanted to achieve, and Steven Soderbergh about 15 years ago had a similar idea with Kafka, with Jeremy Irons. Taking Kafka before he became the writer that he is, that he was, and imagine a story that happened to him and which inspired him. Another source of inspiration, of course, was the play by Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Monaco: And did you work that text very heavily? I caught all the references to Tartuffe and the Bourguignon. If I looked carefully would I find references to all the other plays?
Tirard: If you looked carefully you would find references to about 8 to 10 different plays, yes, not all of them.
Monaco: Well I think you caught Moliere. At least the one I know.
Tirard: Thank you.
Monaco: I had no preconceived notions when I saw the film, I had read nothing about it. So it was an interesting surprise. But then on reflection I was really, what stuck with me was that you could do a great comedy that any modern person could relate to easily, but there was also this under-layment of seventeenth century French culture, that probably in this country, no one under sixty would have any possibility of being able to relate to. Was that intentional?
Tirard: Um, yes.
Monaco: Reference to corneae. and hexameter, the salon.
Tirard: Sure, I like it when a movie works on several levels. The idea of course was that it had to work for people who knew nothing about nothing about Moliere. They had to enjoy the film, definitely. And then if you knew a little bit about Moliere, you enjoyed it even more. And if you were a Moliere connoisseur then there were really some things that were specifically for you to enjoy. And then if you didn’t care about the period it didn’t matter because really this was a contemporary comedy in disguise. But if you were a seventeen century connoisseur, once again, then there were things that were there specifically for you to enjoy.
Monaco: About yourself. You had an unusual path to being a French film maker, you studied in the U.S. at NYU. How did you get here?
Tirard: Um, I came to the U.S. because of Woddy Allen, really. Because even though I can’t really say that Woody Allen is truly an American Film maker, when hes very different from the kind of film makers that I talked about earlier, he was a great influence for me and New York, or course, was a city that fascinated me.
Monaco: Well you make a comparison between Moliere and Woody Allen, which is from the sublime to the ridiculous. Woody Allen, you make a point in the film of suggesting that Moliere was disappointed that he can only write comedies. No one will take him seriously as a tragedian And Woody Allen felt the same way and made one of the worst movies ever, I think, called Interiors. .
Tirard: I never saw Interiors.
Monaco: Well you have to see Interiors. He thought he had to make a serious film to be taken seriously and I think that is so stupid.
Tirard: Well Moliere wrote a really dreadful tragedy also.
Monaco: Was that in fact historical that he felt he should write tragedy?
Tirard: Oh absolutely. This is absolutely true. The entire beginning of the film, up to the moment when he is thrown in jail is, I don’t know that I would say accurate, but everything is true. Moliere wanted to play tragedies, he wanted to write tragedies and he was really, really, really bad at it. In fact what’s really funny is that he realized early on that he was bad at tragedy, well he accepted the idea that he was bad at tragedy. Went he performed comedies for thirteen years touring in France, and then finally the King hears about it and says, come to Paris I’d like to see you play because I hear you are really good. And he comes to Paris to perform in front of the king and he can’t help performing a tragedy and it’s a disaster and the king is just appalled and everybody is appalled and thinks what has he done! And so Moliere comes back on stage very embarrassed and says your majesty I’m sorry give us five minutes and I’m going to improvise a little comedy for you, and he does and its brilliant. And the king says oh now I get it, and finally gives him this theater. But he just couldn’t help it.
Monaco: Tragedy tomorrow comedy tonight.
Tirard: Yes, exactly,
Monaco: Thank you very much.
Tirard: Oh you are welcome.
Monaco: And luckily…well first of all this film is gorgeous to look at from costumes to setting to cinematography. You don’t have to be a Moliere fan, you don’t even have to know what that means. But after you see it you’ll probably want to pick up some books from Oxford University Press, luckily, there are pretty cheap,. Thank you.
Tirard: Thank you.