The second film this year made by a pioneer of the French New Wave to deal with the world of the theater (after Jacques Rivette’s Cannes entry, “Va Savoir”), “Fifi Martingale” is a rare feature to come from Jacques Rozier, a “nouvelle vague” pioneer (“Adieu Philippine”) whose output has been small over the last 40 years. “Fifi” is much less accessible to non-French audiences than “Va Savoir,” and its indulgence in the behind-the-scenes goings-on during the staging of what looks to be a truly terrible farce soon taxes the patience. Francophile audiences may respond, however, especially because of the presence of durable comedian Jean Lefebvre in a key role. Elsewhere, the pickings will be slim.
“The Easter Egg,” a farce written and directed by the pompous Kevin Kazanovitch (Mike Marshall) has been playing successfully in a small theater in Paris for 150 performances though, from the endless excerpts we see of it, it’s the kind of very broad, very old-fashioned drawing-room comedy about infidelity among the well-to-do that is definitely an acquired taste.
Kazanovitch has just been honored with a prestigious award, the Prix Moliere, but he is so convinced that there’s a plot (a “cabal” he calls it) against him in the Paris theater world that he refused to attend the ceremony. Furthermore, he decides, against the wishes of all his actors and collaborators, to make some changes to his play, changes that will consist of a response to his real, or imagined, enemies.
Yves Lempereur (Yves Afonso), who plays a key role in the play, is absent. In fact he’s auditioning for a TV commercial in which he has to play a chicken. Summoned urgently to the theater, still partly in chicken make-up, he is slightly injured when his taxi is hit by a car driven by Gaston (Jean Lefebvre), a natty little entertainer who is courting one of the play’s actresses, Fifi Flores (Lili Vonderfeld).
Although Lempereur is quite willing to play his role with a bandaged leg, Kazanovitch is beside himself at this catastrophe — until the ever-helpful Gaston reveals he has a photographic memory — and proves it by learning Lempereur’s role after one quick look at the script.
At about the mid-point, Rozier moves away from the theater to explore the world of the cunning Gaston, who manages a flamenco troupe and who is always in need of money. Film’s title is derived from the Provencal word “martingalo” — meaning a supposedly foolproof system of gambling, one at which Fifi is adept.
Much of the film’s humor will be lost on audiences who don’t know the significance of names like Moliere and Tartuffe, and many of the puns included in the dialogue will also fall on unresponsive ears. Early in the film a character remarks that the wretched TV commercial Lempereur is trying out for is “very Gallic — the French will love it,” and that may also be true of Rozier’s film.
However, too many of the jokes are inaccessible or simply not very funny, and the actors are encouraged to play to the gallery throughout.
Lili Vonderveld’s Fifi is a particularly strident creation. But it’s good to see Lefebvre, star of the celebrated “Gendarmes” comedy series and of countless other films, in excellent form as the wily Gaston. The rest of the cast members do what they can with their unsubtle characters. Technical credits are all pro.