“How can you name a man after a tulip?” sneers the bad guy in the final reel of this 18th-century swashbuckler. “One sniff, and it wilts.” The villain, it seems, not only has the best lines but clearly saw a sneak preview of “Fanfan La Tulipe.” This over-edited remake of the 1952 French classic strains to be humorous and, though high on energy, is almost bereft of that most vital ingredient: real charm. Though Christian-Jacque’s B&W original, which made a star of Gerard Philipe, won’t mean much to anyone under 50 outside France, this widescreen color version, tailored to a younger generation with a shorter attention span, is at best an OK time-waster, with a likably ingenuous Vincent Perez cutting a relaxed figure in period duds. But he and most of the solid cast are consistently undercut by antsy but workmanlike direction from Gerard Krawczyk, signaling less than stellar B.O. in Gaul and mild returns offshore. Big-budget pic made a lightweight opener for the 56th Cannes fest May 14, the same day it opened in French cinemas.
The script by producer Luc Besson and Jean Cosmos maintains some of the first pic’s anti-militaristic tone (a fillip for European auds exhausted by the ravages of WWII), notably in the opening. Foppish Louis XV (Didier Bourdon) surveys a battlefield from afar, but is unable to remember who the enemy is. On a regal whim, he decides to have a nice round number of 47,000 soldiers fighting for France, so his underlings, led by La Franchise (Jacques Frantz), are dispatched to find 38 volunteers pronto.
Cut to a nearby haystack, where Fanfan (Perez) is busy at his favorite sport, seducing the nearest maiden. Dragged to the altar but managing to escape at the last moment, Fanfan signs up for the king’s Aquitaine Regiment and thus avoids forced betrothal.
As early on as the second reel, it’s clear that helmer Krawczyk is going to pursue the high-energy, restless approach that made his smash-’em-up auto comedy “Taxi 2” and acrobatic extravaganza “Wasabi” hits with young auds in France. Nicolas Trembasiewicz’s editing, in which no shot lasts longer than a few seconds, destroys any sense of visual geography to the action. The editing reaches an early apogee when Fanfan bumps into pretty Adeline (Penelope Cruz); the key first scene between the two leads should plant the seeds for their future relationship, but is drained of resonance by agitato cutting back and forth in closeup.
Adeline tells Fanfan he will achieve glory in the army, but in fact she is the adopted daughter of La Franchise and is helping her dad find recruits.
Fanfan accidentally saves the king’s daughter, Henriette (Magdalena Mielcarz), from bandits in a forest. Traveling with Henriette is Louis’ mistress, Mme. de Pompadour (Helene de Fougerolles), who takes a liking to the carefree young blade and gives him a tulip-shaped broach from which he takes his nickname.
Fanfan soon makes an enemy of his sergeant major, Fier-a-Bras (Philippe Dormoy). The two men finally square off in a rooftop duel that’s agile but has no real sense of midway climax. As elsewhere, Alexandre Azaria’s rousing symphonic score is too heavily orchestrated (brass, bass) to impart any lightness or grace to the proceedings.
Second half, which doesn’t hew as closely to the original movie, finds Fanfan initially pursuing his interest in Henriette and being mistaken for an enemy spy but finally unmasking the real villain (Gerald Laroche).
Perez is no stranger to sword-and-breeches roles (“On Guard!”, “Queen Margot”) and handles the title role with almost no doubling and a measure of geniality. He’s surrounded with a large, mostly reliable cast, including Frantz’s solid La Franchise, de Fougerolles’ gently simmering Pompadour and Bourdon’s mildly comic but over-exposed Louis XV.
However, other roles either don’t come off (Dormoy’s blustering Fier-a-Bras, Guillaume Gallienne’s gay colonel) or register at such a low level that they’re almost disposable (Michel Muller’s peasant father).
Most prominent piece of miscasting is Cruz as Adeline, a role originally essayed with gypsy fire and startling decollete dresses by Gina Lollobrigida. Even allowing for generational changes, Cruz isn’t up to such a key role: The best that can be said for her perf is that, when Krawczyk’s direction occasionally relaxes, she shows the beginnings of some chemistry with Perez, but no real spit or passion.
Production design and costuming are fine, at both a decorative royal level and an everyday, sweat-and-mud level. Gerard Simon’s widescreen Technovision lensing is at its best in exteriors but lacks sweep and visual breadth, with no overall look. Running time, at 97 minutes, is tighter than a drum.