France's 'Moliere': a flamboyant souffle of images

The invasion of the channel snatchers continues. First, the British with their superb BBC TV studio miniseries such as "I, Cladius" on PBS.

Now, the French have finally crossed the Atlantic with their Antenne 2 production of "Moliere." (PBS Wednesday, starting Jan. 9 for five successive wednesdays, 8-9 p.m.; check local listings for premiere and repeats). "Moliere" is a flamboyant souffle of luscious images which will have you salivating for more crusty bagettes to sate the appetite for drama it creates.

Based on a viewing of two hours and a sampling of the remainder of the five-hour miniseries, I find that "Moliere" highlights a series of gorgeous tableaux, recording the 17th-century kingdom of France, as it traces the life and career of playwright Jean- Baptiste Poquelin, known as Moliere, from the age of ten until his death in 1673.

Written and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, the series overwhelms viewers with absolutely dazzling cinematography by Bernard Zitzermann and Jean Paul Meurisse. However, much credit should also go to Guy- Claude Francois for set design and costume design by Daniel Ogier. Together with the director, the cinematographer , set and costume designers have captured the series glory for themselves.

All of them have obviously fallen in love with their subject matter and created unforgettable scenes of the ambivalence of French life under Louis IV -- the beauty and the grime, the brocade and the tatters, the luxury and the squalor, the feasting amid famine, the shame and the glory. Director Mnouchkine , totally infatuated with the images, allows her camera to linger longingly, to caress and cavil, to worship at the feet of the goddess Picturesque as the story line marks time, tapping its own feet with Gaulic impatience.

"Moliere" is a Peeping Jean of a series, a peasant peering hungrily at the lush and the lofty. It mirrors the age like a Vermeer canvas. Chockful of carnivals, puppet shows, prejudice, and repression, "Moliere" revels in the framework of an acting troupe touring the 17th-century kingdom.

The series constantly stops and stares without regard for dramatic continuity , then starts again as if the viewer had pushed a button asking for local color. In many cities the series will be simulcast in French over a local radio station , so it is possible to tune out the dubbing and hear it in its original form. But at times I found myself turning down the sound and just allowing the florid gaudiness to flow over me. It was as pleasureble an experience as listening to the dubbed dialogue with its wide range of accents.

"Great Performances" has brought much unusual fare to TV under the auspices of WNET/NY. Nothing so far has matched the visual splendor of "Moliere."

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