With his low-cut blouses, arch demeanor, and fruity name, Fanfan la Tulipe may have been the original metrosexual, stuck in the sticks though he was. The roguish hero of many popular French songs, he quips, parries, and gallops his way through the 1760s French countryside in Christian-Jaque’s feisty 1952 action-adventure, playing at Film Forum as a prologue to their three-week “Summer Swashbucklers” series—a frothy tonic in the midst of blockbuster dog days.
Introduced canoodling with a farmer’s daughter in a haystack, our Fanfan (sparkly-eyed Gérard Philipe, who did his own stunts) ducks out of a forced marriage by enlisting in King Louis XV’s army for the Seven Years’ War, egged on by the faux fortune-teller Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida), who appears to him on a sun-dappled bank like a Russ Meyer milkmaid. Comely Adeline is the real prize, but Fanfan spends most of Fanfan (not to be confused with the 2003 remake starring Vincent Perez and Penélope Cruz) striving to self-fulfill Adeline’s prophecy that he will marry the king’s daughter, Henriette (Sylvie Pelayo). The kind princess bestows Fanfan’s botanical nickname after he saves her from a bandit gang, though her saturnine dad (Marcel Herrand) remains decidedly unimpressed.
Capable of surmounting a three-on-one handicap in a sword scrap, Fanfan acquires a proletarian sidekick (Olivier Hussenot) and fills his days with well-timed trespassing, narrow escapes, wild coincidence, and much buckling of swash on rooftops and meadows. His knack for happy accident is key to the movie’s offhanded charm: Everything from his rescue of the princess to his foray behind enemy lines to a near-miss execution is basically an opportune mishap. Cahiers-savvy cinephiles will recognize Fanfan as the type of handsome prestige production that the French New Wave overthrew in the early ’60s, but this example of the “cinéma de qualité” is hardly a musty artifact, with its compact editing, its breezy and mischievous tone, and, in a country not yet a decade removed from the Nazi occupation, its acrid anti-militarism, clear from the ash-dry narration of the opening battle sequences onward. The movie’s crowning action blow isn’t from a blade or a musket but rather a humble open palm, delivering a bitch-slap to the warlike king.