An occasionally witty and consistently lascivious romp, "The Libertine" plays into universal notions of what the French are always up to -- gourmet food, sex, philosophizing and more sex.

An occasionally witty and consistently lascivious romp, “The Libertine” plays into universal notions of what the French are always up to — gourmet food, sex, philosophizing and more sex. Exploring one very busy day in the life of Denis Diderot, the 18th century philosopher who produced the first “Encyclopedia” in between a lifestyle devoted to earthly pleasures, pic is a proudly ribald piece of faux-sophistication for fans of French farce. A dandy cross-section of Gallic thesps gets an opportunity to cut loose in this monumen-tally crude costume comedy that could prove a niche earner in upscale arthouse situations.

Film reps a giant step up for helmer Gabriel Aghion, whose last assignment, the lamentable “Belle Maman,” brought us Catherine Deneuve disco dancing before the urinals in a men’s room. “Libertine” takes the sex-o-centric humor that worked so much better in Aghion’s gay-themed B.O. smash “Pedale douce” (“What a Drag!”) and lands somewhere between the two pics.

Story is set in the lively pre-Revolutionary era, when the Libertines bucked church and state to speak, eloquently, of forbidden topics and practices. No sooner had Diderot and friends published their Encyclopedia, than it was outlawed by the government and their printing press shut down. However, copies of the banned book continued to circulate, infuriating the king and his religious advisers.

Diderot (Vincent Perez) and his wife (Francoise Lepine) and daughter are staying at the country estate of the Baron and Baroness d’Holbach (Francois Lalande, Josiane Balasko), with the baroness’ cousin, Madame de Terfeuil (Arielle Dombasle), and her foppish husband (Christian Charmetant) also in residence. The chapel’s cellar conceals a subterranean community of typesetters and printers who operate two incredibly noisy presses.

A cranky cardinal (vet Michel Serrault, in a delightfully hammy turn) shows up hoping to sniff out the secret location of the renegade press. Around the same time, the enticing Madame Therbouche (Fanny Ardant) arrives to paint Diderot’s portrait. (She’s already done Vol-taire, we’re told — and had her way with him, to boot.)

Bulk of pic consists of Diderot driving the typesetters crazy by writing his Encyclopedia entry on “morals,” only to tear it up after an en-counter with the fair sex causes him to modify his opinions. Meanwhile, to prevent the cardinal from nosing around near the chapel, the bar-oness keeps him occupied with her own (and eventually the entire staff’s) racy confessions.

Script is based on the play by popular legit scribe Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt that was inspired by true incidents, and helmer Aghion never met an innuendo he didn’t like: hymen humor, erection puns, anal-penetration jokes, eunuch yucks and fellatio giggles parse the proceedings. Running gags include the baroness’ enthusiasm for foreign delicacies (chocolate, caviar, pineapple, popcorn) and sensual pleasures (a steam-bath from Turkey complete with former slaves). Balasko’s earthy charm is an excellent fit here.

Ardant has fun with her layered role as Madame Therbouche, and Dombasle scores as the baroness’ cousin, an assiduous devotee of cunni-lingus, which she is happy to accept from men or women. In the title role, Perez, teeth gleaming and hair flying, displays considerable aplomb even while playing a prolonged outdoor sequence in his birthday suit.

Wigs and costumes fit the bill. However, Bruno Coulais’ score, which flirts with a disco demeanor, will not be to all tastes. Lensing is ade-quate, with an over-fondness for extreme closeups and asides spoken to camera.

The Libertine

France

Production

A Pathe Distribution release of a TF1 Films Prod., Bel Ombre Films, Mosca Films, Josy Films, Sans Contrefacon Prods. production, with participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: UGC Intl., Paris.) Produced by Gaspard de Chavagnac. Executive producer, Raphael Cohen. Directed by Gabriel Aghion. Screenplay, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Aghion, based on the play by Schmitt.

Crew

Camera (color), Jean-Marie Dreujou; editor, Luc Barnier; music, Bruno Coulais; art director, Dan Weil; costume designer, Olivier Beriot; sound (Dolby), Brigitte Taillandier, Vincent Anardi; associate producer, Pascal Houzelot; assistant director, Thomas Trefouel. Reviewed at Gaumont Ambassade, Paris, Feb. 28, 2000. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Denis Diderot - Vincent Perez Madame Therbouche - Fanny Ardant Baroness d'Holbach - Josiane Balasko The Cardinal - Michel Serrault Madame de Terfeuil - Arielle Dombasle Chevalier de Terfeuil - Christian Charmetant Madame Diderot - Francoise Lepine Baron d'Holbach - Francois Lalande Julie d'Holbach - Audrey Tautou Angelique Diderot - Vahina Giocante
With: Bruno Todeschini, Arnaud Lemaire, Yan Duffas, Veronique Vella.
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