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Stars still shine, but 'Fanfan' shows age

As a reminder that there is, in fact, nothing new under the sun, 1952's ``Fanfan la Tulipe" reappears today at the Kendall, proving there were high-spirited swashbuckler parodies 50 years before Johnny Depp strapped on his sabers for ``Pirates of the Caribbean."

It also suggests that the shelf life of these movies isn't quite as long-lived. ``Fanfan" is enjoyable but undeniably creaky; what played as glorious period tomfoolery to European festival juries and discerning U S audiences in the early 1950s now just seems quaintly pleased with itself.

The two best reasons to see the movie are the young, carnally refulgent Gina Lollobrigida and the dashing and doomed Gerard Philipe. Philipe died young, at 36 of liver cancer, and he's all but forgotten today, but he casually burns a hole in the screen as the 18th-century wastrel of the title. Cool, playful, absurdly handsome, he does what Albert Finney did in 1963's similar ``Tom Jones," but a lot more of it.

Fanfan is a Paris dandy who has become marooned in a rural village during the Seven Years' War, a conflict the movie wickedly portrays as the idle hobby of kings, played with live peasants. When the hero is found dallying in a haystack with the stacked daughter of a local burgher, he signs up for the military rather than wedded bliss. Urging him on is a gypsy fortuneteller named Adeline (Lollobrigida, her subpar French dubbed by actress Claire Guibert), who predicts he'll marry the king's daughter, Princess Henriette (Sylvie Pelayo).

Adeline turns out to be an undercover army recruiter and a camp follower who sets her hat for the irresistible Fanfan, who for his part has taken the fortune-telling seriously and is chasing down the princess. Much of the movie's humor comes from the hero's blithe insistence that he can do whatever he wants -- up to and including slapping King Louis XV (Marcel Herrand) himself -- while military rules and social convention demand otherwise.

Even the prospect of hanging doesn't faze our Fanfan. A natural rebel and/or the original slacker, he's foremost a sword-flashing representative of the empowered common man, appearing on the scene just a few decades before his confreres stormed the Bastille.

``Fanfan la Tulipe" ignores larger ideas, though, for ribaldry, character comedy, and increasingly baroque romantic subplots, and after a while it wears out its welcome. There's a mustiness to the proceedings -- all those august names from the Comedie Francaise in the cast and crew -- and a sense of indulgence gone slightly sour. This was at least the third movie about the beloved national folk hero (a fourth came out in 2003, with Penelope Cruz in the Lollobrigida role), and the filmmakers of the French New Wave weren't yet on the scene. Actually, movies like this, well-produced and edgeless, were what the New Wave reacted against.

Still, ``Fanfan" is a carefree hour and a half that leaves little lingering aftertaste one way or the other. Lollobrigida is sweetly sexy in her low-cut peasant blouses, and Philipe strides through the film as if he owns it, which he does. ``Pirates" may look equally smug in 50 years but only with luck will it look this good.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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