Jean de la Fontaine, le defi



PARIS -- Suddenly, France's classical age is in fashion. "Jean de la Fontaine, le defi" ("le defi" means "the challenge") is the second film about a 17th century cultural icon to appear this year, and director Daniel Vigne's portrayal of the willful poet and fabulist inevitably will be compared with "Moliere," the highly successful portrait of the dramatist as a young man released here in January.

Where the earlier costume drama essentially is a lighthearted comic romp, Vigne -- director of the medieval mystery tale "The Return of Martin Guerre" -- aims to pack a thin story with contemporary relevance. The results are diverting but unfocused, and "Fontaine" is unlikely to play as well at the boxoffice.

When the young Louis XIV (Jocelyn Quivrin) ascends to the throne in 1661 and axes the chief minister Fouquet (Nicky Naude) to replace him with his personal favorite Colbert (Philippe Torreton), the air is thick with the turning of coats.

But Fouquet's protege Jean de la Fontaine (Lorant Deutsch), a dreamy, insouciant poet who at 35 has yet to prove himself as a writer, springs to his defense. He denounces his drinking partners Moliere (Julien Courbey) and the tragedian Jean Racine (Romain Rondeau) for their supine indifference to a flagrant injustice and launches a campaign for the release of the imprisoned ex-minister.

He is blackballed for his pains, and the campaign achieves nothing other than to mark him as a troublemaker in the eyes of the ruthless Colbert.

In the process, though, La Fontaine has honed his writing skills. In particular, he develops and perfects the ancient form of the animal fable, using it as a vehicle for a series of satirical portraits of an increasingly conformist society. His pithy one-liners soon are all the rage. He plans to have his fables published in book form, for which he will need the king's authorization.

Being personable, good-looking and well-connected, La Fontaine finds no shortage of ladies of noble lineage willing to offer him food and board, though sometimes he has to wait on tables. But he's more at home among the people. For love interest, he dallies with Perrette (Sara Forestier), the tavern serving girl who seeks to better herself by learning to read.

The movie wends its amiable way to La Fontaine's predictable vindication with just enough incident to keep the spectator interested, notably the arrival of Colbert's hitman Terron (Daniel Duval), who challenges the poet to a duel to which there can be only one outcome but is foiled by the arrival by a group of La Fontaine's lowlife friends.

There is pathos in his midnight confrontation with Racine, whom he accuses of acting "no better than a dog, eating out of the king's hand." But too often in such exchanges the dialogue is overly schematic as the filmmakers hammer home their point about the need for artists to maintain their independence.

The film makes good use of France's heritage locations. As a historical political thriller, it has its moments but fails to thrill. However, the closing scenes provide a convincing visual metaphor for the steady drift under the Sun King to what was to become the prototype of a totalitarian regime.

Cineteve, France 2 Television
Director: Daniel Vigne
Screenwriter: Jacques Forgeas
Producers: Philippe Rey, Fabienne Servan Schreiber
Executive producer: Jean-Pierre Fayer
Director of photography: Flore Thuillez
Production designer: Regis Nicolino
Music: Michel Portal
Costume designer: Florence Sadaune
Editor: Thierry Simonnet
Jean de la Fontaine: Lorant Deutsch
Colbert: Philippe Torreton
Perrette: Sara Forestier
Chateauneuf: Jean-Claude Dreyfus
Moliere: Julien Courbey
Louis XIV: Jocelyn Quivrin
Terron: Daniel Duval
Racine: Romain Rondeau
Duchesse d'Orleans: Fabienne Babe
Jannart: Jean-Pierre Malo
Fouquet: Nicky Naude
Running time -- 100 minutes
No MPAA rating