There is a common pitfall in staging a classic comedy. All too often, the director and actors remember the "classic" and forget the "comedy." Shakespeare and Checkov suffer frequently from the mortician's school of comedic staging. So does Moliere. Gerard Depardieu's film version of Le Tartuffe is a case in point.

This version of Moliere's classic play of false piety and gullibility was derived from the National Theater of Strasbourg's stage production. Depardieu has essentially filmed the play. He relies almost exclusively on lengthy, motionless medium shots. The camera almost never moves, or shows us a closeup or a long shot. This rather dull shot selection is completely consistent with the play it records. Not only does the camera never move, but neither do the actors. The sets are exceedingly stark, with no furniture breaking the monotony of the walls and floors unless its presence was essential to the script.

The result is, by and large, dull. The performances are low key and more suited to realistic drama than comedy. Time and again obvious opportunities to make the audience laugh are knowingly passed up. According to a native French speaker I saw Le Tartuffe with, the actors speak Moliere's poetry with great beauty. Within the limitations of of the basic choices of the staging, the performances are excellent. Depardieu himself plays Tartuffe, the convincingly pious hypocrite who tricks a well-intentioned but gullible father. He is perhaps a bit too convincing, almost never showing us the scoundrel behind the mask of humility. The result is a very plausible, and somewhat frightening, Tartuffe, but we see too little of the humbug to make the character even remotely amusing. Francois Perier is stern and implacable as the duped father. The role is easily prey to parody, and Perier assiduously avoids any hint of farce. He succeeds in convincing us that the father isn't a total ass and is completely sincere, but also provides a figure of no fun whatsoever.

But good performances ultimately cannot save an entirely misguided concept. I found the first half of Le Tartuffe almost unbearably slow and static. The second half was an improvement, but not good enough to save the production as a whole. Depardieu's directorial talent is difficult to judge. His choices are perfectly matched to the production he filmed, but can one be satisfied with able service to a fundamentally flawed concept? I cannot recommend Le Tartuffe to any but the most devoted Moliere fan.

(As an postscript, I should say that the French speaker I mentioned earlier was quite pleased by the overall production. Fluency in French may well make the difference for this film.)

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