Judge Ben Saylor is named after the folk hero Benben the Rhododendron.
A French swashbuckler who's neither musketeer nor (scarlet) pimpernel…
There's an undeniable irony in the fact that the 1952 film Fanfan la Tulipe has received a Criterion Collection release, since many of the titles that label has put out include French New Wave movies that represent the kind of filmmaking Gallic directors were engaged in as a direct response to more conventional works (derisively referred to by the New Wavers as "cinema of quality") such as Fanfan. And while that fact, coupled with the DVD's admittedly goofy cover art, might lead one to dismiss this film out of hand, Fanfan la Tulipe represents a kind of film that, while certainly not as innovative as those that would follow it, is nonetheless a splendid, well-done piece of entertainment.
Facts of the Case
In France, the bloody Seven Years' War is depleting the country of soldiers. Despite this shortage, the free-spirited Fanfan (Gérard Philipe, La Ronde) wants nothing to do with the military life. Until, that is, he finds himself in trouble after "tumbling" a local beauty. In order to escape "punishment" (ie, marrying the woman), Fanfan joins the army, after further encouragement by the beautiful fortune-teller Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida, Never So Few), who predicts that Fanfan will see glory in the army and win the hand of King Louis XV's daughter.
Unfortunately, Adeline is actually the daughter of a recruiting sergeant, and her prediction was a fake to entice Fanfan to enlist. Undaunted by the truth, the irrepressible Fanfan sets about fulfilling his "destiny," even as his would-be soothsayer finds herself falling in love with him.
Fanfan la Tulipe is what seems today to be a rarity: a smartly made action comedy. Sure, some films have come close (the first Pirates of the Caribbean being a good example), but many others have fallen far short of what director Christian-Jaque and his cast achieve with Fanfan la Tulipe (the second and third Pirates films, to name just two).
The film's opening sequence offers a clear indicator that what we are watching is something special. Fanfan begins with a montage of France at war. Taken on their own, the shots appear to be garden-variety images of men at war. But the shots are accompanied by a voiceover narration track that drips with satire; war is described as "the only recreation of the kings which the people could enjoy," and the purpose of battles is "to provide historical quotes for the classroom."
If this subversive edge is largely missing for most of the rest of Fanfan la Tulipe, the film nonetheless offers scene after scene of clever entertainment. Christian-Jaque keeps the tone light and jocular throughout; when there isn't an action scene (where, it's worth mentioning, people are sometimes killed), the characters are engaging in dialogue that had me laughing out loud more than once. (The film's risqué nature surprised me; at one point, Fanfan, gazing at Adeline from above a rooftop, remarks, "What a charming view! There's a lovely valley between those hills.") And while the pacing of the film does flag in spots (particularly the second act), I can't say that I was ever bored while watching Fanfan.
It should go without saying that a large part of Fanfan la Tulipe's success is due to Gérard Philpe's performance in the title role. Although, as is revealed in one of the special features, the handsome, athletic Philipe did not particularly like the character of Fanfan and even clashed with Christian-Jaque as to how to approach the role, his performance is perfect for the character. Philipe infuses Fanfan not just with charm but also an indefatigable bravado and single-minded determination, which is what powers the character to dunderheadedly pursue the King's daughter, even with the beautiful Adeline unabashedly pining for him right before his eyes. Best of all, Philipe manages to make Fanfan completely likeable throughout the film, despite the fact that the character can come across as a bit of a jerk sometimes.
Supporting Philipe are other talented actors; Lollobrigida represents not just eye candy but also a more than able foil to Fanfan. The scenes of verbal jousting between Lollobrigida and Philipe are some of the movie's best. Noöl Roquevert also offers memorable support as Fier-à-Bras, a French officer whose love for Adeline turns him against Fanfan. Also look for Geneviève Page (El Cid) as the Marquise du Pompadour.
The Criterion Collection's transfer of Fanfan la Tulipe reflects the company's usual fine work; the image and sound quality are both commendable. The film is presented in black and white 1.33:1, with a French mono audio track as well as an English dub.
Fanfan la Tulipe, being one of Criterion's lower-priced titles (an MSRP of $29.99), is correspondingly light in the special features department. Included are a five-minute clip of a colorized version of Fanfan, the film's trailer (an epic at nearly four minutes!) and finally, a 27-minute documentary produced by the Criterion Collection called "Gérard Philipe: Star, Idol, Legend." Relying largely on interviews with Philipe's daughter Anne-Marie and his biographer, Gérard Bonal (with archival interview footage of Lollobrigida and Christian-Jaque), this is a succinct and very interesting look at one of international cinema's biggest stars. A booklet with an essay by L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan rounds out the package.
While one of the more lightweight titles put out by the Criterion Collection (both in terms of the film's emotional and thematic heft as well as the disc's bonus content), Fanfan la Tulipe, decades after its release, proves itself to be a witty and highly enjoyable movie. While the disc isn't overflowing with extras, the documentary on Philipe is very informative, and Criterion has done its standard excellent job in terms of technical presentation. For anyone interested in French cinema made by someone whose last name isn't Godard or Truffaut, Fanfan la Tulipe is well worth watching.
Not guilty. En garde!
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Scales of Justice
• New video program about actor Gérard Philipe
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