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To see the gorgeous Fanfan la Tulipe is to go back in time twice over: to the film’s eighteenth-century French setting and to the international cinema world of more than fifty years ago, when this genial action farce was initially released.
The winner of both Cannes’ best director award, for Christian-Jaque, and Berlin’s Silver Bear in 1952, and so popular internationally it was sold to some fifty countries, then a record for a French production, Fanfan la Tulipe is an example of a kind of crowd-pleasing mainstream French costume drama that has become a lost art form. Starring the überhandsome couple of Gérard Philipe and Gina Lollobrigida, it features duels, chases, and low-cut costumes, all shot in glorious black and white by the great cinematographer Christian Matras, who collaborated with Max Ophuls on such classics as La ronde, Le plaisir, and the incomparable The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Fanfan la Tulipe also has, courtesy of a voice-over narration read by the Comédie-Française’s smooth Jean Debucourt, a bit of a tart antiwar message. “Once there was a charming land called France,” the narrator begins, and when he says of a particular European conflict, “His Majesty’s soldiers found the war so pleasant they made it last for seven years,” you can hear the arch sensibility of top French screenwriter Henri Jeanson, whose scripts included Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko and Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord.
This kind of moviemaking, alas, fell into disfavor, in part because Fanfan la Tulipe was precisely the kind of film New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut rebelled against, first as critics and then as filmmakers themselves. They mocked and derided what French cinema had become both during and after World War II, calling it “cinéma de qualité” and, even worse, “cinéma à papa.” What could be more easily dismissed, after all, than the movies your father enjoyed?
And Christian-Jaque was certainly widely enjoyed and admired in his day. As film historian Dudley Andrew notes, “Between 1937 and 1950, he had to be reckoned as one of the leading men in French cinema, not only as regards box office . . . but in terms of the possibilities of the art of cinema.” Because the New Wave critics personalized their attacks—“There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors,” Truffaut famously wrote—it was inevitable that someone of Christian-Jaque’s stature would become one of their primary targets. The New Wave succeeded so well that Christian-Jaque’s name is absent from many film encyclopedias, and you’d be hard-pressed to find film buffs who know as much about his work, or that of fellow New Wave target Claude Autant-Lara (Devil in the Flesh, The Red and the Black), as they do about Eric Rohmer or Jacques Rivette.
Not that the director, who died in 1994 at age eighty-nine, after a career of seventy-some features, likely cared very much about any of this: he was too confident and successful to be bothered. Born Christian Maudet, he started as a graphic designer and took his directing name from a firm he founded with a partner. He began directing in 1932 and learned his craft turning out an endless series of comedies for the popular actor Fernandel.
As a director, Christian-Jaque developed a reputation for technical efficiency and enthusiasm, and was apparently quite popular with his actors: he ended up marrying three of them, most famously Martine Carol, whom he starred in Lucrèce Borgia, Madame du Barry, and Nana. He first worked with Gérard Philipe in 1947, on a very well-respected three-hour adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and after the success of Fanfan la Tulipe—also an adaptation, of a beloved French story dating from a 1819 song, which first became a play and then, in 1925, an eight-part silent-film serial—he went on to collaborate with top talent, from Brigitte Bardot to Sophia Loren to Alain Delon.
Still, despite all this success—and because yesterday’s taboo-breaking rebels rapidly become the enforcers of today’s rigid orthodoxy—it became fatally déclassé to appreciate the pleasures of Christian-Jaque’s kind of cinema. But it only takes a glance at Fanfan la Tulipe to understand completely that crowd-pleasing does not have to be a dirty word, that these deft diversions can be richly enjoyed for just what they are.
In fact, one of the film’s strongest supporters was the rigorously intellectual Marxist critic Georges Sadoul, who wrote of seeing the film at a screening in Paris: “I arrived late and was lucky to find a free seat in the dark. From first scene to last, I kept laughing out loud. When the lights came up, someone said to me, ‘Oh, it’s you! I thought you were part of a claque the producer hired to help sell the movie!’” (That someone, as it turned out, was director René Clair!)
Sadoul’s enthusiasm is not hard to understand today. For one thing, the film’s stars have not even begun to fade. The Italian Gina Lollobrigida is fetching enough in custom-tailored peasant outfits that no one minded that her voice was dubbed into French by Claire Guibert. The French even coined a word to describe her physical type—lollobrigidienne—and had a hand in her becoming the best-paid actress in Europe, most memorable for American audiences in John Huston’s Beat the Devil.
Gorgeous as Lollobrigida is in Fanfan la Tulipe, it is her costar, little known in this country though legendary in France, who makes the strongest impression, in the title role. That would be Philipe, who was on the eve of only his thirty-seventh birthday when liver cancer killed him in 1959, a mere seven years after Fanfan la Tulipe opened. A supremely handsome actor, he was a standout in classical theatrical dramas by Racine and Corneille, as well as a major film star through appearances in films like Devil in the Flesh, La ronde, and Les liaisons dangereuses. His death caused such a rupture in France that a stamp was issued in his memory, making him one of the first film actors (along with the Marcel Pagnol trilogy’s Raimu) to be so honored.
Here Philipe plays Fanfan, a self-assured rogue and seducer who is headed for the eighteenth-century equivalent of a shotgun wedding to a farmer’s daughter when a gorgeous fortune-teller named Adeline (Lollobrigida) suggests a different future: the king’s daughter will fall in love with him. Fanfan flees the wedding and joins the army, where he discovers that Adeline is a recruiting sergeant’s daughter who will tell young men anything to get them to sign up. That doesn’t stop Fanfan from delusionally fixating on this bogus prophecy, and when he just happens to save Princess Henriette, daughter of King Louis XV, from brigands, he is sure that love is in the offing. He is “as bold as he is brave,” says an admiring Madame de Pompadour, who rewards the young man with the golden jeweled tulip that becomes part of his name.
Of course, things don’t work out quite that simply. Louis XV (Marcel Herrand, the oily Lacenaire in The Children of Paradise), who appreciates Adeline’s charms in a way Fanfan initially does not, apparently has nothing better to do with his valuable royal time than get involved in this farcical romantic situation. “All I ask of you is a little pleasure,” he says to a dubious Adeline, playing the forlorn seducer to the hilt. “Who asks for your heart?”
Frankly, Fanfan la Tulipe is at its best when its title character stops talking long enough to engage in the film’s numerous deftly choreographed action set pieces, whose athleticism would have impressed even Douglas Fairbanks. With Philipe enjoying acting in the Provence region he adored and doing a lot of his own stunts, Fanfan la Tulipe is replete with heroic leaps, speedy horse rides, occasional explosions, and clashing sabers. In fact, Philipe got so involved in the fight sequences that he was cut across his forehead and stabbed in the hand by a saber but refused to call a halt to the proceedings. That energy was apparently contagious: when you see Philipe ducking behind a chimney in a key rooftop duel, it’s because the stuntman playing his enemy got so carried away with the scene that the actor felt the need to protect himself.
What took place, remembered director Christian-Jaque, was “a sort of osmosis: Gérard on the one hand became Fanfan in his everyday life, and on the other hand he injected his personality into a Fanfan who, like him, was spontaneous, rebellious, irreverent, merry, charming, enthusiastic, mischievous, and even wild at times.”
If this all sounds like a 1950s version of Pirates of the Caribbean, that comparison has something to it. Like the best of audience pictures, Fanfan la Tulipe is an essential part of our international film patrimony, and it’s a pleasure for English-speaking viewers to reclaim it with pride as well as joy.
Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Times Book Prizes. His latest books are Never Coming to a Theater Near You and Now in Theaters Everywhere.