Christian-Jaque’s 1952 B&W swashbuckler “Fanfan la Tulipe” is that special film that was made for the masses but appeals equally to cineastes — or is it the other way around? In any case, the pic has lost none of its charm after more than a half-century, and thanks to a typically loving Criterion transfer, it looks better than ever. Only the limited extras, which themselves aren’t to be faulted, mute the joy, though the DVD’s relative bargain price reflects the absence of more substantive bonus material.
“Fanfan” won Christian-Jaque best director at Cannes and is said to have been the highest-grossing French film that year, but its enduring fame rests with its dashing lead, Gerard Philipe, aka the Gallic James Dean, cut down in his prime by liver cancer at 36. Some debate whether this star of stage and screen would have survived the New Wave — Truffaut reputedly hated him — but we’ll never know.
We can, however, savor the films that exist, especially this one, in which Philipe plays Fanfan, a bold and handsome provincial who somehow manages to make real the prophesy of a fake gypsy, Adeline, played by a ripe and comely Gina Lollobrigida in her French film debut. Indeed, the whole cast seems born for these roles, particular Noel Roquevert, as Fanfan’s rumpled recruiting sergeant (and Adeline’s papa), and Marcel Herrand, a sly yet magnanimous Louis XV.
A 26-minute docu, “Gerard Philipe: Star, Idol, Legend,” shot in Paris earlier this year, features mostly comments from his daughter, Anne-Marie, and Gerard Bonal, who co-wrote an earlier Philipe docu for French TV. Here we learn that Philipe performed many of his own stunts, including some of the pic’s more elaborate acts of derring-do, which rank with the best on film. More ominously, it’s revealed that his lawyer father was a Nazi collaborator who, sentenced to death after the war, escaped to Spain. What’s not explained, and ought to be, is to what degree the son, later a prominent leftist, assisted.
Christian-Jaque and Lollobrigida also show up here, in archival footage, the former assessing his tense relationship with Philipe, with whom he made two other films; the latter offering only praise, and comparing him to Olivier.
Remaining bonuses are less essential, including a version of the pic dubbed in English and one scene taken from a 1997 colorization that is impressive enough to make viewers wonder why Criterion didn’t offer the full film this way as well.