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DVD SAVANT

Fanfan la Tulipe
&
Le Bossu

Separate Region 2 releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

England's C'Est La Vie present us with two superior French swashbucklers this month. Fanfan la Tulipe is said to be the film that re-sparked European cinema-goers' interest in swashbuckling "cloak and dagger" flicks and its success re-launched a genre that would still be going strong over a decade later. Gina Lollobrigida and Gerard Philipe shine in this endearing mix of romance, action and comedy. Coming later in the cycle, the equally worthy Le Bossu has a slightly more serious tone. Action man Jean Marais and his comic sidekick Bourvil are the main players here.


Fanfan la Tulipe
C'Est La Vie
1952 / B&W / 1:33 / 96 min. / Soldier of Love, Fan-Fan the Tulip / Region 2 PAL
Starring Gerard Philipe, Gina Lollobrigida, Marcel Herrand, Olivier Hussenot, Henri Rollan, Nerio Bernardi, Noel Roquevert, Jean Marc Tennberg, Genevieve Page, Sylvie Pelayo
Cinematography Christian Matras
Production Designer Robert Gys
Film Editor Jacques Desagneaux
Original Music Maurice Thiriet, Georges Van Parys
Written by Rene Wheeler and Rene Fallet
Produced by Alexandre Mnouchkine
Directed by Christian-Jaque

Synopsis:

During the final stages of the Seven Years War, a roguish womanizer Fanfan (Gerard Philipe) is being frog-marched to a shotgun wedding when he catches the eye of a beautiful gypsy girl, Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida). She insists on reading his palm and she subsequently predicts that he is destined to be a great soldier who will find fame and fortune and marry Princess Henriette (Sylvie Pelayo), the daughter of King Louis XV (Marcel Herrand). Fanfan escapes from his captors and enlists only to discover that Adeline is really the daughter of the recruiting sergeant, La Franchise (Nerio Bernardi): her fortune-teller act is a ruse employed to dupe reluctant recruits into seeking out her father. Adeline mocks Fanfan but he simply becomes determined to make her prediction come true anyhow: his subsequent actions land him in big trouble and cause heartache for Adeline who finds herself falling in love with him.

Fanfan la Tulipe is a real gem and its fine looks, great acting and sprightly pace won Christian-Jaque the Best Director award at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. A former artist and art director, his work here is a tour de force that must have kept his camera operators constantly on their toes: he seems to have had precision-placed cameras positioned everywhere. Most sequences are covered from a number of interesting angles and each and every shot is perfectly framed and composed. And there are some splendid camera moves on display too: the delightful low-angled tracking shot that introduces the statuesquely posed Adeline (Fanfan's point-of-view as he approaches and then passes her) is an early indication that a quality filmmaker is at work. The film's sets, locations and costumes are all equally impressive and Maurice Thiriet and Georges Van Parys's busy soundtrack score successfully supplies every type of cue needed for this kind of show.

I must confess that the only Gina Lollobrigida film that I'm truly familiar with is Eugenio Martin's 1971 Euro Western, Bad Man's River: that film is a fun guilty pleasure but it does somewhat undertax Lollobrigida, Lee Van Cleef, James Mason and a host of other quality actors. In light of this, Fanfan la Tulipe proves to be a real eye-opener: Lollobrigida is simply amazing here. Attractive and voluptuous but graceful, convincing and expressive, it's no wonder she became a star. Gerard Philipe's boyish good-looks, winning smile and athletic disposition make him the perfect partner for her. There's quite a chemistry present between the two.

Good support comes from Nerio Bernardi as Adeline's slightly dishonest father. When King Louis XV takes a deviously insistent interest in a defiant and unwilling Adeline, La Franchise discovers that he's not as greedy or as cowardly as he thought he was and he readily fights to defend his daughter's honour and dignity. The same cannot be said of Adeline's grasping, mean-spirited boyfriend, Sergeant-Major Fier-a-Bras (Noel Roquevert) who is happy with the idea of selling Adeline to the King for a night in exchange for a promotion. He's a nasty James Finlayson look-a-like that she puts up with simply because she doesn't want him as an enemy. During one of his confrontations with Fanfan he puts a fellow soldier's child in danger: Fanfan's heroic rescue of the child wins him a likeable and humorous sidekick, Tranche-Montagne (Olivier Hussenot), with whom to share his misadventures.

This is a light-hearted romantic comedy, and while the action scenes are suitably acrobatic and exciting, the sword-fights (all clashing sabres swung high for maximum dramatic effect, etc) aren't played out too seriously. It's all good comic-book fun. In the film's final chapter, Christian-Jaque's suddenly decides to show just how fantastic a Western director he might have been: the pistols come out and Fanfan, Tranche-Montagne and La Franchise take to their horses and gallop after and attack a speeding stagecoach. It's brilliantly staged but the movie has gone slightly nuts by this point, essentially descending into a quite lengthy succession of chases which become in their own way as daft, as funny and as exasperating as the chase found at the end of Michael Reeves's She Beast. There are no film speed tricks present here, just a mad and seemingly endless series of pans, cross-fades and cuts that are used to emphasize the length and the intensity of the chase. When they finally come to a grinding halt behind enemy lines (where everybody speaks what sounds like French played backwards) our heroes enter a cave, follow a tunnel and (....spoiler begins) wind up capturing the enemy's command post in a decidedly slapstick finale (....spoiler ends).

But for all of its humour, Fanfan la Tulipe seems to possess a distinctly anti-war outlook. High ranking officers and tacticians are mocked and ridiculed and the futility and senselessness of war is alluded to throughout the film. At one point the narrator describes war as being "the only sport of kings which the people could play as well." This aspect of the film brings to mind parts of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and the staging of the cannon-heavy battle scenes, and a very striking circular pan (a point of view shot from under a table) which focuses and lingers solely on the boots of those standing around the table, makes me wonder whether this show might have been enjoyed by a young Sergio Leone.


I'm guessing that this film is viewed as a national treasure in France because it has certainly been well looked after. The picture quality is excellent with virtually no print damage present. The black and white photography looks great and the picture is sharp. For those who require it, a colourised version of the film is also included here: I had a quick skip through this and it actually looks like quite a decent job has been done. The sound, which features the film's original French soundtrack supported by removable English subtitles, is excellent too.


Le Bossu
C'Est La Vie
1960 / Colour / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 101 min. / The King's Avenger, The Yokel / Region 2 PAL
Starring Jean Marais, Bourvil, Jean Le Poulain, Sabine Sesselmann, Francoise Chaumette, Hubert Noel, Edmond Beauchamp, Paul Cambo, Georges Douking, Paulette Dubost
Cinematography Marcel Grignon
Production Designer Georges Levy
Film Editor Jean Feyte
Original Music Jean Marion
Written by Pierre Foucaud from the novel by Paul Feval
Produced by Paul Cadeac
Directed by Andre Hunebelle

Synopsis:

France, 1701: Prince Philippe de Gonzague (Francoise Chaumette) conspires to kill his cousin, Duke Philippe de Nevers (Hubert Noel) in order to inherit the Nevers' family fortune. But Nevers has secretly married Isabelle de Qelus (Sabine Sesselmann) and the couple have a baby daughter, Aurore. When he discovers that his servant Passepoil (Bourvil) has unwittingly been drawn into Gonzague's plot, expert swordsman Henri de Legardere (Jean Marais) rides to warn Nevers that his life is in danger. Assassins attack the pair and Nevers is killed by Gonzague who then blames Legardere. With a price on his head, Legardere flees to Spain with Passepoil and baby Aurore. Isabelle de Qelus eventually marries Gonzague on the understanding that he will use his wealth and power to find Aurore. Instead he sends more assassins after the girl and her adopted protectors.

France, 1717: Gonzague announces a family council meeting at which he intends presenting false evidence which will prove that Aurore is dead. Legardere, Passepoil and Aurore (Sesselmann, again) must journey to Paris for a final confrontation with Gonzague.

This film is a real swashbuckler but the staging of the action scenes is reasonably naturalistic when compared to the overblown and acrobatic stuff of Douglas Fairbanks and Burt Lancaster or the comic book-like escapades played out in Richard Lester's Musketeer films. When Legardere jumps from a high balcony, pulls a stunt on his horse or pursues a sword fight on a roof bedevilled by loose and crumbling roof-tiles, he looks as vulnerable as the next man and the resulting sense of unpredictability adds a real air of excitement to the proceedings. Actor Jean Marais was no spring chicken when he made this film but he's pretty energetic and he does all of his own stunts.

The same sense of excitement flows over to the actual sword-fights themselves: the fight choreography is based around extremely frenetic rapier sword-fencing techniques (as opposed to hefty blade swinging) and it is convincing. When Legardere is outnumbered, none of his attackers stand around waiting for him to bring the fight to them - they're all attacking him simultaneously and it's his speed and his skill at disarming and dispatching his assailants that gets him through.

The inclusion of much horseback action set amongst lovingly shot wide-open vistas makes this film play like a French Western at times. And the emphasis on one-against-many sword fights loosely prompts the kind of emotions more usually stirred by Japanese Samurai movies. Our heroes here are as dedicated, brave, proud and noble as any Samurai: Legardere and Nevers first meet when they single-handedly dispatch a gang of assassins together - they're so impressed by each other's fighting skills that they immediately challenge each other to a duel that is only halted when Passepoil advises them that soldiers are approaching. When Legardere rides to Nevers' rescue a second time, Nevers thinks he's simply come to resume the duel.

Evidence of the film's high production values can be seen in its lavish sets and impressive locations. And while the costumes used here are suitably colourful and stylish, the often distracting and overly-flashy approach to regal fashions employed by most filmmakers who tackle French period pieces is largely absent. Similarly, period Royal protocol, etc, is duly noted and observed but the film doesn't get bogged down in pompousness or overtly ceremonial set-pieces. The acting is uniformly excellent with Jean Marais (La Belle et le Bete) successfully bringing a fair and likeable nobleman-cum-hero to life and Bourvil (Le Cercle Rouge) excelling as his slightly roguish but funny and loveable servant. Humour doesn't always sit well in action films but it's not a problem here: Bourvil comes across as a genuine comic talent who effortlessly brings a series of gentle-but-welcome comic interludes to the show without upsetting its narrative flow.

There's also some great dialogue present. After Nevers has been struck down by the masked Gonzague, Legardere pursues him yelling, "Ignoble coward! Assassin! Turn and face me, or I shall strike you in the back! Coward! Whoever you may be, I will recognize you. I have marked your hand! And when the time comes, if you don't come to Legardere, Legardere will come to you!" Francoise Chaumette is convincing as the aristocratic villain, Gonzague. Already fabulously wealthy, he wants to add the Nevers' inheritance to his stockpile in order to become more powerful than even King Louis X1V. Even when he's married to the beautiful Isabelle de Qelus he's found living it up with decadent friends and loose women at secret addresses around Paris.

Le Bossu possesses the grand look and feel of a big studio production from the late Fifties and it represents something of an unexpected treat. Director Andre Hunebelle offers up some nicely composed shots and utilizes some impressively deft but subtle camera moves while Jean Marion provides some suitably regal period music to accompany the perfectly paced action. It's exciting and involving stuff. Hunebelle directed Marais in two more swashbucklers before the pair switched genres to work on the popular Fantomas series.


This is another great presentation, boasting an anamorphic picture that is both colourful and sharp. There is a very brief sequence during the film's opening titles that plays just a little raggedly but this soon settles down. And there are a few very minor jumps due to missing frames present in the main body of the film but these don't pose a problem. Apart from that, there's very little in the way of print damage present. The sound, which features the film's original French soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles, is generally very good but the dialogue does get just a little raspy in a couple of spots.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fanfan le Tulipe rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Biographies for Gerard Philipe, Gina Lollobrigida & Christian-Jaque, photo/poster gallery, C'Est La Vie trailers reel and booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2004

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Le Bossu rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound:Good ++ / Very Good -
Supplements: Biographies for Andre Hunebelle, Jean Marais & Bourvil, photo gallery and C'Est La Vie trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2004



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Text Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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