Classic Film Review: Fernandel gives the 1952 Mademoiselles the “French Touch (Coiffeur pour Dames)”

You never think of how integral doors are to a “door-slamming farce” until you run into a screen comedy that leaves them out.

“French Touch,” aka “An Artist with the Ladies” and titled “Coiffeur pour Dames” in its native France, is a screen comedy adapted from a stage play that could have been tailor-made for its star.

The French vaudeville singer and comic Fernandel plays a lowly sheep-shearer who clips his way to hair styling stardom in post-war Paris by giving scalp “massages” that are catnip to the ladies. That points him and us towards a marriage-threatening, client-clinging, teen daughter seducing finale that screams out for something bawdier than the mild-mannered 1950s would allow.

But more importantly, as our anti-hero Mario juggles the wife (Blanchette Brunoy), the many upper class clients and the somewhat smitten 18 year-old daughter of a client (Françoise Soulié) he has massaged his way into, dodging husbands and fathers as he bounces from office to salon to apartment along the way, you miss the doors he should be slamming behind him or getting slammed in his face.

Marius the sheep shearer (Fernandel) has a gift, something the ladies of his village pick up on straight away.

“You’ll go far with those hands!”

Whatever leering accompanied that on the stage, it’s largely brushed past in this not-particularly-bawdy comedy. Because in a few too-quick scenes, we watch Marius work his way from sheep and dressing up horse tails for contests at county fairs, to dog grooming and hair-styling for plastic dolls in Marseilles, where he meets Aline (Brunoy) and talks her into marrying him and following him to Paris as he pursues his dream.

Even in a tiny salon working for somebody else, “Mario” as he now calls himself, becomes famous for “fingers that speak.” To clients, “each hair is a violin string” (in French with English subtitles) for this “virtuoso” of the scissors, shampoo and hair dryer.

He seems destined for glory, and not just for mastering the basics. The hairdresser is “everyone’s confidante and father confessor.” The ladies want his coiffeur adorning their heads and his fingers working their scalps into relaxing release.

“Your profession’s so gay,” one client swoons, in a pre-Stonewall use of the word. Mario is simply irresistible.

The first client to truly cross the line is kept woman Edmonde (Arlette Poirier). She demands that he come to her apartment to prep her for an evening at the theater with her married lover, and they get so carried away that the next thing you know, they’re in bed together.

How he knew to keep a pair of pajamas with him at all times is why he is French and you and I are not.

But it isn’t until Mario clips 20 years off the wife of the kept woman’s paramour that his world changes. He saves Mme Brochard’s (Renée Devillers) marriage, and she sets him up in his own salon. Soon, every posh Parisienne is at his fingertips. Literally.

Naturally, our Icarus flies too close to the sun…or daughter, in this case, Mme. Brochard’s hip teen daughter (Françoise Soulié).

Yes, modern viewers are allowed to say “Ewww” here. Even accounting for the difference in eras, that wasn’t Miss Austen’s Empire waistline England and 18 paired with a stout, grinning hair-dyed fop of his late 40s isn’t played for the big laughs it might have delivered. Not that young Denise seems over the moon about the hairdresser who pines for her.

That goes for much of this Jean Boyer film. Whatever his earlier reputation, this outing seems muted and muzzled, watered down even for its era. He is best-known for his pre-war films, although he worked steadily up until his death in 1965. “Un mauvais garçon,” “Virginie” and “We Go to Monte Carlo” might be his most famous credits, although as a writer and composer, he had a tune on the “Chocolat” soundtrack decades after his passing.

Still, Fernandel is in fine form and the framework of this follicle-friendly farce holds it all together. It’s not a great French sex comedy, even of its era, but it’s well worth checking out, if for nothing else than considering how it might be remade, even today.

A bawdier version where they don’t forget to slam a few doors could still play.

Rating: approved

Cast: Fernandel, Renée Devillers, Françoise Soulié, Blanchette Brunoy and Arlette Poirier 

Credits: Jean Boyer, scripted by Jean Boyer and Serge Weber, adapted from the Paul Armont play. A Times Films release on Tubi, Mubi, Amazon etc.

Running time: 1:27

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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