The 1952 French smash Fanfan La Tulipe introduces its wandering rogue protagonist Fanfan (Gérard Philipe) in the middle of what seems to be a typical day. Having "tumbled" a farmer's daughter in the middle of the afternoon, he's caught in a post-coital nap by the farmer and a small mob. Sensing charm might not be enough to get him out of the situation, he jumps in a nearby river and swims away without a second thought. It doesn't work—the film cuts almost instantly to the crowd attempting to drag a wet Philipe to the altar—but that gesture, the kind signifying a person who believes himself completely free, captures much of what's appealing (and a little suspect) about the film's hero.
Directed by the venerable Christian-Jaque, Fanfan La Tulipe plays like an extension of its protagonist's personality. It's so pleased with its own ability to be charming that all other concerns fall away. Christian-Jaque became a favorite target of the French New Wave, perhaps in part because of that urge to please without any hidden agenda. Still, it seems unfair to pick on a movie with no greater ambition than entertainment, when it makes good on that ambition so thoroughly.
Charming Philipe flits from one adventure to the other after evading marriage by joining the army of Louis XV in the midst of the Seven Years' War. He's motivated less by patriotism than by a consultation with a voluptuous phony fortuneteller (Gina Lollobrigida), who promises that joining will serve as the first step toward his destiny of marrying the king's daughter. Philipe takes Lollobrigida's prophecy to heart even after she's revealed herself as a charlatan and clearly taken a liking to him herself.
From there, the two winning stars flirt and fight between outbursts of well-staged swashbuckling that grow grander as the film progresses. Trouble reliably finds Philipe, who just as reliably evades it. The almost absurdly lighthearted film occasionally uses its setting to emphasize the absurdity of war—paving the way for Richard Lester's Musketeers films a couple of decades later—but it's largely there to be loved unreservedly, and it seems happy to leave behind pleasant memories and nothing more.
Key features: A documentary on Philipe's career, politics, and short life as a post-war superstar.