Fanfan la Tulipe Review

France, the Eighteenth Century. Fanfan (Gérard Philipe) joins the army of King Louis XV in order to avoid marriage to a village girl he has seduced. Along the way he meets fake fortune teller Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida) who foretells that one day he will kiss the King's daughter...

Young Turks often repudiate the work of those who go before them, but unfortunately in this case the type of work the young, and not so young, mostly male, Turks of the French New Wave has remained out of fashion ever since. Our view of French cinema, as it is of many a country’s cinema, has been changed as a result. The films a foreign cineaste thinks of as French are rarely what a French audience goes to see. (A good case in point would be François Truffaut, who did not have a domestic hit until The Last Métro.) So there was no-one to speak up for “le cinema du papa”, though contemporary directors like Louis Malle, or younger ones like Bertrand Tavernier, neither of whom were really New Wavers, did draw upon classical cinema in their own films – as did Truffaut for much of his later career. So a film like Fanfan la Tulipe, winner of the Best Director Prize at Cannes, and a worldwide hit (either in its original French or dubbed into English), has been cast into the outer darkness. If it seems an odd film for Criterion to release, you could say that they are in this case showcasing a neglected film to suit alongside their roster of textbook classics of world cinema.

You can’t make too many large claims for this film. It’s an unashamedly populist historical adventure, full of swordfights and derring-do, a good few laughs, and two major stars (and sex symbols, one of each gender) of its time. Director Christian-Jaque, a prolific filmmaker, clearly hasn’t any higher aims than to entertain his audience, and he does that very well indeed. Add to that a ration of Gallic sauce that you wouldn’t find in an American or British film of its day – one reason why European films were such a draw in the 1950s.

Fanfan was a role tailor-made for Gérard Philipe. Fanfan is the archetypal village Casanova, a role that Philipe was to return to. (He even turned his attentions onto Englishwomen in Knave of Hearts.) He plays his role with an insouciance and athleticism which is very appealing Opposite him was the Italian Gina Lollobrigida, dressed in costumes that accentuated her hour-and-a-half-glass figure. She was a major sex symbol of the time – in Europe, only just behind Bardot and Loren. (She is dubbed into French by Claire Guibert, though this is not too obtrusive.) She and Philipe are a good match for each other. Christian Matras – who was shooting Max Ophuls films around the same time – contributes some first-rate black and white camerawork.

Fanfan la Tulipe packed them in back in 1952, and you can see why. It’s a film which is still highly entertaining today.


Fanfan la Tulipe is number 451 in the Criterion Collection. It is released on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only. (I do not have the UK DVD release from 2004, distributed by C’est la Vie, to hand, but please note that it is cut by two seconds to remove an illegal horsefall.)

As it was made just a year or so before the advent of widescreen, Fanfan was shot in Academy Ratio and is presented in 4:3 without anamorphic enhancement. Criterion have also dispensed here with the windowboxing they have favoured for the 4:3 titles.It's a fine transfer of the black and white original, with blacks, whites and a panoply of greys and grain is natural and filmlike.

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was originally, and presented as 1.0. With admirable completism, Criterion have also provided the English dubbed track, which even so begins in French and switches over during the opening narration.

This is not one of Criterion's most extras-laden discs. The main item is a newly-produced featurette: “Gérard Philipe: Star, Idol, Legend”(27:03). The interviewees include his daughter, Anne-Marie Philipe, his biographer Gérard Bonal and, in archive footage, Gina Lollobrigida and Christian-Jaque. All the interviewees speak in French: subtitles are provided. This documentary traces Philipe's life from his initial conflicts with his father (a far-right Nazi collaborator, while Philipe was a lifelong liberal), his films and his early death, aged just thirty-seven, from cancer. Film stars often mirror the societies that produce them: and Philipe was one of the definitions of French manhood at a time when the country was trying to put the deprivations of the war years behind it.

Dubbing the film to make a film accessible to those who might not watch a subtitled film is one thing: you could argue that a significant proportion of the film's audience saw it with an English soundtrack. However, in the interests of completeness, Criterion have provided a clip from 1997's colourised version, the scene where Fanfan is presented with the tulip he is named after (5:34). Fortunately they haven't given us the entire film colourised, as colouring in a film designed and lit for black and white is the Devil's work. I guess you can admire the skill with which this has been done, but I can't approve of it.

The extras on the disc are completed by the film's theatrical trailer (3:52), back in black and white this time.

Criterion's booklet this time contains just the one essay - “En garde!” by Kenneth Turan – along with the usual cast and crew and chapter lists and notes on the DVD transfer.

8 out of 10
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Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:18:48

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