- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Two exceptionally handsome and adroit young French actors made film debuts during World War II: Louis Jourdan, the older by three years, and Gerard Philipe. Coincidentally, both were the sons of hotel managers.

Hollywood came calling soon after the war and landed Mr. Jourdan, signed by David O. Selznick for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case.” Arguably the classiest romantic lead in Hollywood custody for another decade or more, Mr. Jourdan was at his most expert and attractive as Gaston in the Oscar-winning musical version of “Gigi” in 1958.

Gerard Philipe remained loyal to the French stage and screen during a starring career that lasted about 15 years. It ended prematurely in 1959, at the age of 36, when he succumbed to liver cancer. A popular vehicle that dates from the middle of his reign as a film star, “Fanfan the Tulipe,” a romantic swashbuckler of 1952 that spoofs heroic and lecherous tendencies associated with the reign of King Louis XV, begins a revival engagement tomorrow at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

Still an agreeable entertainment in many respects, “Fanfan” matched Mr. Philipe with Gina Lollobrigida, an emerging Italian starlet who was pretty irresistible in her own right. A stunning French newcomer protects national pride as Madame de Pompadour: Genevieve Page. She was destined to moonlight in occasional Hollywood movies, notably “Song Without End,” “Youngblood Hawke” (a beloved howler in which she seduced James Franciscus as a fictionalized version of Thomas Wolfe) and “Grand Prix.” She may or may not be remembered by art-house patrons as the stern madame of the brothel that employs Catherine Deneuve in Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour.”

Since it’s difficult to find Mr. Philipe’s better-known movies on DVD, old admirers and curious newcomers might want to touch base with “Fanfan” while it’s available. The director, Christian-Jaque, was inclined to wear out genial and facetious welcomes, but this movie shares some of the gusto of Burt Lancaster’s wonderful swashbucklers from the same time frame, “The Flame and the Arrow” and “The Crimson Pirate.” Their playfulness has been evoked and even magnified recently in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” adventures, which add a prodigious element of fantastic spectacle.

Fanfan, a legendary figure invoked in numerous songs of the 18th century, is a country-born youth who joins one of the king’s regiments in order to avoid matrimony. Eventually, he rides, duels and ingratiates himself into a glamorous union with the daughter of a recruiting sergeant. The tulip is a token of esteem from Pompadour, rescued from overmatched highwaymen by the nimble and intrepid hero.

A coincidental showcase of recent French movies, grouped under the title “C’est Chic” and shared by the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, the Embassy of France and the National Gallery of Art, doesn’t appear to rival “Fanfan” in stellar appeal or fun-loving tendencies. A long overdue Gerard Philipe retrospective would be a more rewarding project. It’s easier to regard him as a desirable example of masculine chic than any leading men within camera range for “C’est Chic.” All are hard-pressed to seem merely “new” or “interesting.”

Mr. Philipe was a plausibly seductive romantic star from the time of his popular breakthrough as the precocious suitor to Micheline Presle in “Devil in the Flesh” (1946) to his posthumous appearance as a modernized Valmont, opposite Jeanne Moreau, in Roger Vadim’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960.” Good looks weren’t the entire story in his case. He brought a subtly clouded temperament and modulated voice to the embodiment of potential heartbreakers.

I’m not sure anyone has surpassed him at suggesting undercurrents of genuine susceptibility and remorse in compulsive seducers. His sensibility dignifies Valmont, as it did an earlier portrayal of a similar nature, in Rene Clement’s “Monsieur Ripois,” an Anglo-French production of 1954 known as “Knave of Hearts” in England, the principal location. Many British reviewers were incensed at the idea of his character preying on English innocence, but the encounters had an eerie authenticity. They probably influenced Bill Naughton’s “Alfie” years later.

When Mr. Philipe was an attraction, no one made more sense as Stendhal protagonists — Fabrizio in “The Charterhouse of Parma,” circa 1948, and Julian Sorel in “The Red and the Black,” circa 1954. That conviction remained even when the movies proved disappointing. And while weaving a spell on the screen in roles that ranged from Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin to Dumas’ D’Artagnan, Mr. Philipe was sustaining a parallel reputation on the stage, while ranging from Camus’ Caligula to Corneille’s Cid.

The credits for “Fanfan” note that he?s a member of the Theatre National Populaire. In fact, he had asked to join, soon after the company’s formation, and continued to perform for a fraction of his movie salary. A looker, undoubtedly, but also an exemplary looker in his time and place.

TITLE: “Fanfan the Tulip”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1952, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional sexual allusions and mostly farcical scenes of combat in an 18th century setting)

CREDITS: Directed by Christian-Jaque. Screenplay by Henri Jeanson, Rene Wheeler and Christian-Jaque. Cinematography by Christian Matras. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

WHERE: Landmark E Street Cinema beginning tomorrow

SERIES: “C’est Chic”

CONTENT: A selection of recent French movies

WHERE: Most programs at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; some programs at La Maison Francaise, the Embassy of France, 4101 Reservoir Road NW, and the National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Today through Oct. 28

TELEPHONE: 301/496-6720

TICKET INFORMATION: www.afi.com/silver

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