Fanfan La Tulipe (1952) Directed by Christian-Jaque. Gérard Philipe, Gina Lollobrigida (95 min).
Longing for another Jack Sparrow adventure? Try this risqué anti-war romp. Fanfan eludes a shotgun wedding by enlisting in Louis XV’s army, creating a “witty and delightful confection of 18th century military derring-do and winking sexual naughtiness” (NY Times). French with English subtitles.
Fanfan La Tulip is a folk hero, of 18th century ballads, a 19th century song hit (adapted for the film’s score) an operetta and stage melodramas, as well as a lavish 1925 silent film serial. The 1952 version would be sold to over 50 countries and dubbed into as many languages. All over the world people laughed at Fanfan’s irreverence and high spirits. The film was remade in 2003 with Penélope Cruz in the role played by La Lollo.
Louis XV was King of France for three quarters of the 18th century. His decadent lifestyle and many mistresses (like Madame du Pompadour) impeded his foreign policy ability and the bloody Seven Years War (there were about a million deaths) was fought on battlefields throughout the western world. Called the French and Indian War in North America, it ended France’s colonial aspirations in the New World. Here, the war is almost a “sport of kings” as the incompetent armies of the French and Prussians face one another.
Dashing Gérard Philipe was the most adored male movie star of his generation, and is still once of the most respected French actors of all time. Born in 1922, he bypassed a medical career in favor of the stage. He was both a classically trained theater actor as well as a dashing film idol. His first big success was Claude Autant-Lara’s The Devil in the Flesh, in which he played a young man in love with an older married woman. Afterwards, “he became the enchanting emblem of the cinéma du qualité as well as the favorite male actor among the French female public.” Courted by Hollywood, he stayed faithful to the cinema of his native land, where he was admired in classics like Le Cid, and The Red and the Black, as well as more light-hearted fare, like tonight’s film. France’s beloved romantic hero died from complications of liver cancer in 1959, the night before his 37th birthday, insuring his immortality.
He described the character of Fanfan this way, “”The character is natural, vibrant, full of life. What guides Fanfan’s reactions is his determination. He’s a man who forges his own destiny and is not tossed about by events. With this solid foundation, I could create someone who was vigorous and high-spirited.” Phillipe was not just attracted to the character, but to the fact that the locations would be near his birthplace in Provence. Director Christian-Jaque remembered his star’s enthusiasm, “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.” Like many swashbuckling heroes, he sustained many wounds in his zeal to outdo the stuntmen (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.said he sustained more injuries in his adventure movies than he did during his WW II service). Philipe throws himself vigorously into the mad action scenes, with spirited and seemingly spontaneous sword fights, leaps over splendid chateau roofs and fleet horse gallops across the countryside..
Gina Lollobrigida studied to be a commercial artist before getting a job as a model in fumetti, Italian photographic comic books, under then name of Diana Loris. She was a beauty contest winner, and made her screen debut in 1946. After Fanfan La Tulipe she rocketed to European stardom for her earthy glamour and curvaceous figure, universally nicknamed La Lollo. She became the best paid actor in Europe and then was persuaded to sign a Hollywood contract. The Production Code insisted she had to tone down her sex appeal, focused on her spectacular cleavage. Wearing higher necklines, she was cast in high profile American films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame opposite Anthony Quinn and Trapeze with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. In the process, she was deprived of much of her natural sensual style. She also co-starred in Solomon and Sheba, the film in which Tyrone Power died on set. Retiring from the screen in the 1970s, she pursued her photographic interests, and even directed a documentary on Fidel Castro. In 1984 she was lured back to performing by a role in the nighttime soap opera, Falcon Crest.
She was interviewed by Melissa Anderson in Time Out New York when the film re-opened in New York in 2006 and said she was not even sure she wanted to make acting her career until her success in Fanfan. When asked about being called “the World’s Most Beautiful Woman” she replied, “Oh, I was embarrassed. I am very shy, and I felt okay when the attention wasn’t on me. I remember with Marilyn, it was exactly the opposite. When all the eyes of the men were on her, she felt secure. When they were looking at me, I didn’t feel comfortable. Of course, beauty when you are young and making movies is obviously a help. But afterward—my career has lasted more than 50 years; beauty is not enough, because it doesn’t last forever. Personality is more important.”
The winner of the Golden Bear (the audience Award) at 1952 Berlin Film Festival and Best Director at Cannes, 1952, Fanfan was then forgotten, not seen here since the 1950s, and without any home video release until recently. The film played to an enthusiastic sold out house at the NC Museum of Art, few of whom had probably ever seen the film before. Although one of the lavish “tradition of quality” films that Truffaut and Godard and the rest of the New Wave upstarts sought to quash, it’s the opposite of stuffy, with ebullient anti-war satire and swordplay. France was a country only a few years liberated from Nazi occupation and its satirical take on warfare seems quite modern. Critic Georges Sadoul, a great admirer of the film said, “At a time when the Korean War was covering the scorched earth in waves of napalm, Gérard Philipe thumbed his nose at the high and mighty, their weapons and mercenaries. He exorcized the horrors with his gags and pranks” and, echoing Philipe, says Fanfan is a man who “forges his own destiny.”
All quotes from the Film Forum film notes, unless otherwise noted. Other sources include, French Cinema from its Beginnings to the Present by Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, the wikipedia page on the Seven Years War and Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz.