A Man of Action and Repartee

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The New York Sun

Most movie stars these days don’t have the panache to match the unforced charm, derring-do, and effortless ripostes of the hero of 1952’s “Fanfan la Tulipe,” opening Friday for a two-week run at Film Forum. As the sardonic narrator explains, those were the days: “Once upon a time there was a wonderful land called France … ” And we’re off.

“Fanfan” capers along with grace and wit, a respite from the pharaonic machinery of entertainment-at-anycost grinding away behind the pomo pirate and the caped crusader.With an effortless blend of happenstance and willfulness, our underdog hero works his way up from disarming an angry peasant (whose daughter he’s just “tumbled”) to saving King Louis XV’s daughter and, maybe, winning him a war, too.

Efficient filmmaking and a suavely agile Gérard Philipe save “Fanfan” from the underwhelming, sporadic feel of some of the swashbucklers (which are sometimes not as dazzling as hoped). Here you have the complete sword-wielding specimen: a man of action (Mr. Philipe did his own stunts) and repartee (father to daughter: “I thought you were at confession!” Fanfan: “She couldn’t confess before sinning.”).

Fanfan jumps into his pursuits with a boyishness that, even more charmingly, lets us know the guy just can’t help himself, and so the adventure begins. On the frog-march to a forced wedding with his latest exploit, he catches the eye of Adeline, apparently a gypsy. The impromptu fortune she tells — to wed the daughter of the queen — becomes his fixation. He joins the king’s army to escape, and his ambition to fulfill Adeline’s prophecy sends the plot tangoing along.

Adeline is played by the keen and va-va-voom lovely Gina Lollobrigida, surely one of the most onomatopoeically named actors. Her Adeline, actually daughter of Fanfan’s recruiting sergeant, ends up falling for him.Their missed connection and flirtations (idle for him, high-stakes for her) are played with a delightful ease that is often replaced these days with a shocked moue and fussiness. Their union seems inevitable as Fanfan realizes his affinity for her, but the script finds an inventive circumnavigation that keeps the audience guessing.

“Fanfan” is the aperitif to Film Forum’s upcoming swashbuckler series, and the fighting sequences should be fun even for those who identify more with light-sabre-waving than swordsmanship. Besides nailing the movie’s light-adventure formula, director Christian-Jaque shows his mettle in these varied, well-paced set pieces, whether on a rooftop or in a Westernstyle chase after a runaway coach.

“Fanfan” boasts a provincial spunk combined with urbanity — the peasant whose daughter Fanfan tumbles in the hay assumes his daughter was swayed by Parisian wiles.The man taunts a sergeant (who’s stiffly pursuing Adeline) in a swordfight, and their superior, watching the whole thing, simply compliments him on his wordplay.

The nonchalant satire is another factor. From the outset, the picture reminds of the absurdity of war in the 17th century (“the only sport for kings which the people could play too”). King Louis XV (Marcel Herrand), planning his war room, sounds removed and petty as he mulls over methods to upstage the enemy in their ridiculous line battles. Authority in general takes a beating, too, since the King shows his most creative royal initiative in trying to bed Adeline, hiring a devious go-between with a grossly lopsided grin (Jean-Marc Tennberg).

The supporting cast maintains local color and spares Mr. Philipe the burden of carrying the film alone. Adeline’s self-involved, presumptive suitor Sergeant Fier-à-Bras (Noel Roquevert) vies with Fanfan, while fellow soldier Tranche-Montagne (Olivier Hussenot) is sidekick and foil. (He was like Fanfan once, he explains, and then, pow, now he has eight kids.) Jean Parédès preens and coos outrageously as Capitaine de la Houlette, who announces that an upcoming hanging will be accompanied by fireworks and celebrations.

Pitched at just the right level of irony, “Fanfan” is what the occasional so-called “period romp” like last year’s flatfooted “Casanova” presumably aspires to be. It’s a deservedly enduring adventure, and a doubly satisfying accomplishment in giving a good old French folk hero the swords, sex, and style he deserves.

Through August 3 (209 W. Houston Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8112).

The New York Sun

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