Dir. Gerard Krawczyk. France. 2003. 100mins.
Supposedly a fluffy piece of entertainment to kick off Cannes' 56th festival in style, Gerard Krawczyk's remake of the swashbuckler classic - which won Christian-Jaque the best director award in 1952 - is a pretty plodding and charmless experience that works too hard but not successfully enough to court audience favours. Carried as it is by the appeal of its two leading stars, Vincent Perez and Penelope Cruz, it might generate initial interest in France, where it is released on the same day, but subsequent word-of-mouth and reviews are bound to dampen its prospects. Originally planned as an early April release, the Luc Besson production was only too happy to delay its premiere for the prestigious opening slot at Cannes - in retrospect not the best decision for either one of the parties involved.
Krawczyk, whose reputation lies with frenetic modern urban comedies like Taxi 2 and Taxi 3, tries to apply the same kind of approach to the escapades of the much cherished Fanfan La Tulipe, a legendary, popular figure who has graced French theatre, literature and screen for the last 200 years or so. But fond memories of Gerard Philippe and Gina Lollobrigida in the previous film version will haunt this new attempt, whose lavish production values and massive budget cannot conceal its heavy-handed touch.
Fanfan (Perez), an adventurer by profession and a skirt chaser by choice, is manipulated by a lissom fortune teller, Adeline (Cruz), the niece of a recruiting sergeant, to volunteer for the service of King Louis XV. The promise is that this will launch him into his most glorious adventure of all, at the end of which he will sweep the king's daughter, in person, off her feet.
As if to prove the veracity of the prophecy, no sooner does Fanfan join her uncle's battalion than he finds himself rescuing the King's famed official concubine, Madame de Pompadour (de Fougerolles), and the King's daughter, from the villainous hands of a masked traitor and his gang of highwaymen.
Irreverently refusing to succumb to army discipline, Fanfan tweaks the nose of military authority wherever he encounters it and joyfully engages in energetic displays of swordsmanship at the slightest . Finally, he saves the day for the incompetent French army and hopelessly ridiculous generals from the hands of their equally incompetent and ridiculous enemies. In the process he also discovers that true love does not lie in rank and honour, choosing instead a future worthy of Voltaire's Candide.
From the very first scenes it is pretty clear that Fanfan La Tulipe is no history lesson, although it is a historical pageant. Masses of soldiers march across resplendent scenery to massacre each other in lusty fashion, while King Louis XV displays complete ignorance of the war he is fighting for a sequence that might be considered ironic if it was not so drawn out and spiced with so many predictable repartees. It is not simply that the quality of the humour is in question, but the pace that which allows each invention to hang heavy in the air before the next comes along. The action scenes, while numerous and long, lack the sheer elegance essential to the genre, not to mention the evident presence of the editor's hand to smooth off the rough edges.
Certain modern references, like Fanfan's TV commercial-style praise of Adeline's various talents, serve their purpose, but others, like the hand of an Austrian general going up in the air Hitler-style, are rather blunt and out of place. The script, whose main purpose is evidently to lead Fanfan from one skirmish to another, seems to give up towards the end, when all the villain has to do each time he is cornered is grab the easily available Adeline as a shield and then escape.
Perez works hard at the physical gymnastics imposed on him, bravely smiling through it all, but he lacks Gerard Philippe's effortless grace. Similarly, Cruz possesses neither Lollobrigida's abundant charms nor her high spirits. In Christian Jaque's film they all looked as if they were having the best of times; here they seem to be hard at work to complete their chores.
Prod co: Europacorp, Open Art Productions, TF-1 Films Production
Fr dist: Europa
Int'l sales: Europacorp
Exec prod: Bernard Grenet
Prods: Michel Feller, Luc Besson
Scr: Jean Cosmos, Besson
Cinematography: Gerard Simon
Ed: Nicolas Trembasiewicz
Prod des: Jacques Bufnoir
Costumes: Olivier Beriot
Music: Alexandre Azaria
Main cast: Vincent Perez, Penelope Cruz, Didier Bourdon, Helene de Fougerolles, Michel Muller, Philippe Dormoy, Jacques Frantz, Gerald Laroche, Guillaume Galliene