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America's relationship with foreign films once had the feeling of a trip to the museum. Unless one frequented smaller art theaters, exposure to European movies came either at school or through one-off TV series like the Janus classics that showed on PBS television in the early 1970s. Viewers that saw only the so-called "classics" could easily conclude that all foreign films are ponderous, difficult to understand and without exception, profoundly important: La Strada, Umberto D, Diary of a Country Priest, Last Year at Marienbad. If you were laughing at a foreign movie, it must not be any good.
Criterion has done a great service to film culture, opening our horizons to an eclectic range of titles. Who would have thought that the Japanese produced sentimental soap operas like Twenty-Four Eyes, or that France's Jacques Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville made hardboiled crime films much more intense than our own. Fanfan la Tulipe is exactly the kind of entertainment that the New Wave dismissed as old-fashioned and meaningless. Christian-Jaque's swashbuckling adventure comedy became the most popular French film of 1952. It roughly resembles an old Errol Flynn picture but adds its own, specifically French touches. War is an absurdity conducted by incompetent royals, and all human endeavors revolve around the universal equalizer -- sex!
Promising French star Gérard Philipe plays the 18th-century rogue with the funny name Fanfan. Caught in a haystack with a farmer's daughter, Fanfan cheerfully explains that he was only paying the girl a compliment by proving her desirability. Her father sees things differently. Fanfan enlists in the Army to avoid a wedding "au fusil", but also to fulfill the predictions of the Gypsy fortune-teller Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida). Adeline's forecast for Fanfan includes a glorious career as an officer and a marriage to the daughter of the king.
The army hog-ties Fanfan so he can't change his mind about enlisting, but he breaks free to rescue two beautiful Royals from highwaymen, with a dashing display of swordsmanship. One of the women is La Marquise de Pompadour (the beautiful Geneviève Page of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes). She gives him the tulip that becomes his last name. The other beauty is the daughter of King Louis XV, a coincidence that convinces Fanfan that his destiny will come true. Adeline tries to tell the strutting private that her prediction was a ruse to help her father, top sergeant La Franchise (Nerio Bernardi) with his recruiting duties. But Fanfan is too dazzled by dreams of glory to listen to reason.
Fanfan la Tulipe advances quickly from one foolish adventure to another. Ladies' man Fanfan has plenty of excitement along the way, as this is apparently the era of French history dominated by bosomy females. Italian beauty Lollobrigida received a big international career boost from this role, and she's certainly costumed to compete in the sex star sweepstakes. The comedy ranges from high wit to quips played to the cheap seats. Looking down at Adeline from a rooftop, Fanfan even makes a crude reference to her cleavage.
The expensive-looking show gives us armies fighting the Seven Years' War, colorful heroes and mustachioed villains. Adeline falls madly in love with Fanfan, who foolishly sneaks into a palace to see the king's daughter. He and his sidekick buddy Tranche-Montagne (Olivier Hussenot) are sentenced for hanging, much to the consternation of Tranche-Montagne's plump wife (Georgette Anys) and her horde of cute kids. Playboy King Louis grants Adeline's plea for leniency but then expects her to repay him in bed: "Don't be alarmed. I don't want your love, just your body." Realizing that Adeline is the woman of his dreams, Fanfan, Tranch-Montagne and La Franchise go into action. In freeing Adeline they also turn the tide of a major battle, resulting in a happy ending for everyone except the thirty or forty villains run through by Fanfan's sword.
The screenwriters seize every opportunity for comedic swipes at historical conventions. The cheery narrator tells us that France's loyal soldiers were having such a good time fighting, that they decided to keep the war going for seven years. The preening officers expect their troops to look good when falling dead on the battlefield, while the King plays at battle strategy like a reckless child. The most important issue seems to be the choice of battlefields, preferably one with a good spectator position for the King to enjoy the slaughter. In the middle of all this absurdity is the gloriously self-absorbed Fanfan, utterly convinced that all of reality is organized around his quest for riches and love.
Director Christian-Jaque has a flair for action, staging the many swordfights -- on rooftops, in the woods, in a convent -- in the style of a Douglas Fairbanks silent, or Richard Lester's Three Musketeers movies. The athletic and handsome Gérard Philipe is more boyishly innocent than Errol Flynn; it's easy to see why he was a top star of the 1950s. Gina Lollobrigida's acting talent is better appreciated here than in some of her later American films. The show is one of the top swashbuckling classics, and will excite fans that thought that they'd seem them all.
Criterion's DVD of Fanfan la Tulipe is a clean B&W transfer of this buoyant adventure comedy. The hearty music score is well recorded and the sound effects in the fight scenes are as good as any American picture of the time. Disc producer Debra McClutchy has produced a new featurette on the fascinating, brief career of Gérard Philipe, who was successful on both stage and screen and was heavily involved in leftist politics. Kenneth Turan provides the insert booklet essay. An English-dubbed soundtrack is included for those who'd rather not read subtitles, and a final extra offers a clip from the colorized version of the film.
Director Christian-Jaque would later attempt with uneven results, to duplicate this film's success in Madame Sans-Gêne, a sexy costume romp with Sophia Loren.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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