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Frenetic French farce resembles 'Seven Chances'

Author: F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
5 June 2010

I viewed this frenetic French comedy in October 2008 at the Cinema Muto festival in Pordenone, Italy; they screened a print from the Cinémathèque Français with the original French intertitles.

This is a very French movie: even its title doesn't easily translate. In France, a horse that baulks at fences was (still is?) said to be "treble-kneed" (triplepatte). The hero of this movie is nicknamed Triplepatte because he chronically hesitates whenever facing a decision.

What makes 'Triplepatte' very much an exotic offering for modern viewers is the Old World behaviour of its characters, and their very Old World traditions. This is a comedy about hereditary titles and arranged marriages: subject matter which Americans (and most other people today) will find baffling if not outright alienating. Some of the characters have names that are funny in French but don't translate amusingly into English ... such as Mademoiselle de Crèvecoeur ('Breakheart').

Henri Debain, with just a bit too much nose, portrays the young high-born hero Robert de Houdan, whose name unfortunately suggests (to me, at least) the famous French magician Robert-Houdin. Robert's father is the Viscount de Houdan, and Robert is the heir to this title and its estate. Accordingly, Robert is pursued by various women who want to marry him, and by matchmakers who want to marry him TO someone. There's even a pre-teen girl (very amusingly played by Suzy Boldes) who's touted as one of the future viscount's possible wives ... but no worries here; it would be an arranged marriage, to be left unconsummated until young Suzy comes of age. (You see why this movie might alienate modern viewers.)

Of course there are financial problems concerning the estate, rendering Robert a discount Viscount. (Pardon my eye rhyme.) Pierre Palau is very funny as a usurer who tries to stage-manage Robert's matrimony for his own profit.

The story takes a while to set up its premise, but once the plot is in place this movie never looks back. Like Buster Keaton in 'Seven Chances', Debain is pursued by more brides than any man needs. Debain is an excellent actor in this silent film, underplaying most of his emotional reactions to great effect. In the movie's opening scene, he even demonstrates some talent as a quick-sketch artist.

After some clumsy exposition, this film is splendidly paced, with a climactic scene in an elevator. I was intrigued to learn that 'Triplepatte' was based on a novel that was dramatised (and Anglicised) by the American playwright Clyde Fitch. With the title 'Toddles', it was a smash hit in London for the actor Cyril Maude, and a quick flop on Broadway for John Barrymore. If the stage play resembles this French film, then Barrymore was miscast.

Just as its title doesn't easily translate, 'Triplepatte' deals with themes and concerns that modern viewers (even in France) will have difficulty relating to. While watching this movie, I was reminded of Lubitsch's Hollywood films of the 1930s. The Parisians in this 1922 comedy have very little resemblance to actual Parisians of 1922, just as Lubitsch's characters are likewise alien to their own time and place.

This film's pacing and editing are impressive, and there are some nice set designs. If you can relate to this comedy's exotic setting while recognising that it's not a very accurate depiction of Parisian life, then I recommend 'Triplepatte'. I'll rate it 7 out of 10.

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