We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

Made in 1952, at a time when Gallic cinema was dominated by costume pictures derived from history or literature, Fanfan la Tulipe might seem just the sort of “quality” film that the French new wave intended to destroy. Yet director and co-scripter Christian-Jaque’s 18th-century caper has a decidedly 20th-century spirit. Not only does the movie jeer kings, generals, and other war enthusiasts, but it also includes conceptual jokes that anticipate such early new wave-films as Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Métro. Lustrously restored after decades in which it was essentially unseeable, Fanfan la Tulipe is the picaresque tale of a handsome seducer and deft swordsman. Caught in a haystack with a farmer’s daughter, Fanfan (“French James Dean” Gérard Philipe) faces the French peasantry’s equivalent of a shotgun wedding. While being marched to town, Fanfan encounters a soothsayer, Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida), who reads his palm; she tells him that he will become a military hero and marry the king’s daughter. He accepts these predictions enthusiastically, eludes his captors, and enlists with a recruiter who’s conveniently at hand. It’s soon revealed that Adeline is the recruiter’s daughter, who regularly uses such “fortunes” to lure men into war—which, as ironic narrator Jean Debucourt has already informed us, is “the only hobby of kings that the people can enjoy.” Despite Adeline’s deception, she and Fanfan become allies, and her bogus prophecies come true, although not exactly in the way that Fanfan expects. Director Christian-Jaque intertwines slapstick humor, mocking commentary, and earnest swashbuckling, and the first two hold up quite well. Only the plentiful action scenes seem dated, since they’re in black-and-white narrow-screen and lack both gory realism and flashy choreography. Yet if the sword-swinging and horse-riding pall, the movie ends with a succession of effective gags, some silly and others pointed. It would be nice if the king’s frustration when the war ends too soon seemed antiquated, but that sardonic crack is as relevant today as any of the new wave’s social critiques.—Mark Jenkins