The Vincent

May 15, 2003                                                                 

The New Fanfan: Playing it to the Hilt

Vincent Perez, who has crossed swords with Olympic champions, takes on Gerard Philipe's role in Fanfan la Tulipe, the opening film of the Cannes film festival. ''Gerard Philipe was 28 when he played in the movie,'' the actor says, ''and he already had a big career behind him. I'm 38, about the age he was when he died.''

The new Fanfan, produced by Luc Besson and directed by Gerard Krawczyk, the team behind the wheel of the Taxi comedies, is made for a generation that hasn't the foggiest notion who Philipe was or what Fanfan was up to, a peasant boy adrift in Louis XV's wartime countryside. The film, aimed at an audience raised on kung fu videos and PlayStation home entertainment, spells it out.

''Like Tintin,'' Perez suggests, ''this Fanfan has been conceived for kids from 7 to 77.'' Seventy- seven is, perhaps, a stretch. The fans of Christian-Jaque's 1952 Fanfan, a film that lighted up the postwar scene, may prefer their memories of Henry Jeanson's dialogues, of Philipe's airy mocking grace, Gina Lollobrigida's snapping dark eyes and enchanting decollete. Perez parries and banters through the update with Penelope Cruz, who learned French for the part, as Adeline.

''I love fencing; I choreograph my fight scenes and do my own stunts because I do them best,'' he said in an interview in Paris before the festival. ''There's just one I passed on, which was a jump off a cliff into a pool of water. It was on the first day of shooting."

''Fencing, the actor insists, is ''a whole other language, a French specialty.

Tall, dark and handsome actors tend to get typecast as smoothies, but Perez, who started working in film in the 1980s, has shown that he is much more of a character actor of boundless vitality, resourcefulness and humor. He has swashbuckled himself from the impeccable and corseted officer and gentleman appearances to more challenging roles.

''When I started in movies, people weren' t used to seeing actors use their physical side,'' he said. He took four months to prepare for Fanfan. He worked hard on his fencing, and also trained at the Ecole du Cirque, doing juggling, high wire, trapeze and stunts on horseback. ''I learned to fall off a horse backward, walk on a ball. I also did yoga and everything I could do to feel free, agile, light.''

As Fanfan swirls through wartime villages, he also has mouthfuls of text to deliver. ''Magnificent dialogues written by Jean Cosmos, who also wrote the dialogues for Le Bossu. I love his humor.'' Philippe de Broca's Le Bossu (1997), in which Perez showed his skills for comedy, was a hit. ''For the first time, the critics were unanimous about one of my performances,'' he recalls. It was his stint as a cruel and dashing noble that prompted Besson to re-create Fanfan.

Fanfan is made from different mettle. ''He is a devil and that's what I like - a sunny personality, an adventurer, acrobat and idealist and he can't stand taking orders.''

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, of a German mother and Spanish father, Perez calls himself a pure product of Europe. When he came to Paris at 18, he studied at the Conservatory for two years before trying out for Chereau's Theatre des Amandiers in Nanterre, the breeding ground for a generation of gifted actors, who turn up on the same sets and stages, who share friends and partners.

"I wanted to go against the grain, against my image and that's why I joined Chereau's company,'' he says. ''And every time I've worked with him, it gave my career a boost. Our lives are connected, so it' s not a surprise to me that we are both at Cannes, that he is president of the jury and I am in the opening film.''

In Chereau's Hamlet at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, Perez, as Laertes, was in the famous dueling scene. Rappeneau, who was casting Cyrano de Bergerac, saw that Perez had a certain pugnacity that might be just right for Christian. The actor gave the role a modern edginess and mood.

He got a chance to sharpen his sword again in Chereau's La Reine Margot (1993), starring Isabelle Adjani. The last time he acted with Chereau, he played his most startling role: Viviane, a transsexual in Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Those who love me will take the train).''Patrice and I knew that we were taking a risk, that we might end up looking ridiculous.''

He played this twilight character, generous and melancholy, to the hilt. ''I spent 15 hours a day as Viviane,' ' he said. ''On the set, nobody called me Vincent. Viviane hovered between two sexes, she dreamed of having a choice.''

Chereau remembers how Perez initiated the idea of Viviane. "Vincent came to me and showed me a tryout he had done for Abel Ferrara, and it was terrific, very convincing. When you see him in action movies, he's all action, and beyond that, he has it in him to pull out a creation like Viviane."

"Wearing a dress does something to a man," Perez says, straight-faced: ''It was really nice; it brought me closer to women.'' Being close to women has never been a problem. His friends have always kidded him about being a sex symbol; when he went to Hollywood in the '90s, as Jacqueline Bisset's boyfriend, he was treated by the press as the French Lover.

Perez played in Tim Pope's The Crow: City of Angels, but he was disappointed with his American experience. ''It's hard for a French actor to make a career there. All the interesting parts go to Americans or to Latinos like Antonio Banderas, who are better accepted because they appear less foreign than a Swiss-French-Spanish European like me. Americans have trouble fixing me on their radar screen, and France is not exactly in favor these days. I could always play a bad Frenchman, '' he laughs, ''a villain.''

Although there is not much demand for the kind of physical acting he likes, he prefers working in France. ''I like the French spirit. You have an actor like Belmondo who has terrific physical presence. I have a more feminine side than he does, and old-time comedians who liked to dance, like Louis de Funes, had that physical approach.'' Perez fine-tunes his combat choreography. ''I like rapidity, precision, getting the movements down by heart."

Last year he directed his first feature film, Peau d'Ange (Angel Skin), starring Guillaume Depardieu, and he intends to direct again. ''People really want to work with me here, and I have a part to play in projects and that's the kind of energy I need.

Fanfan was shot on location in the French countryside over 100 days. The action is supposed to take place in the sun, ''but there was no sun,'' Perez said. ''As soon as there was a ray, I leaped in with my act. It was a magnificent shoot, the kind that actors don't want to leave at the end of the day. Right now, I prefer doing comedy, parts that take me toward the sun: We have enough tragedy."

''When you read a script, you dream of the movie, and sometimes you're disappointed. Fanfan is the movie I dreamed about. It looks just the way it should look.''

[Written by Joan Dupont]


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