Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Guard (1997)

Original title: Le bossu

18th Century France. After various twists and turns, jokes and betrayals, rogueish fencer with heart Lagardère (Daniel Auteuil) finds himself in charge of a tiny baby named Aurore. Aurore, you see, is the daughter of the Duc de Nevers (Vincent Perez), who just barely managed to marry her mother before he, and all of the wedding guests, servants, etc were murdered by de Nevers’s evil – and as it will turn out rather crazy - cousin Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini) and his merry gang of henchmen. Gonzague saw his position as the Duc’s sole inheritor rather threatened by the suddenly lawful child. Only Lagardère manages to escape the attack, charged by de Nevers to protect Aurore at all costs. At least de Nevers has had the opportunity to teach Lagardère his secret, unstoppable, fencing move, so our hero is well equipped to take down threats.

Lagardère spends the following years as member of a travelling troupe of actors, replacing father and mother to Aurore. When Aurore (now played by the rather stunning Marie Gillain) comes of age, the troupe drifts closer to Paris than they ever did before. When fighting off a would-be rapist, Aurore uses the secret de Nevers move to fight him off. Word of it comes to Gonzague who until now had believed Aurore dead. So he does start with attempts on Aurore’s life at once, ironically sealing his own doom. For Lagardère goes on a counteroffensive (including taking on the role of hunchback obsessed Gonzague’s new hunchbacked private secretary) to not only take Gonzague down but to also win her birthright back for Aurore.

And that’s by far not all that happens in Philippe de Broca’s wonderful adaptation of Paul Féval sr.’s Le bossu (about whose third adaptation I was speaking here). In fact, de Broca sprints through many a delightful moment of swashbuckling adventure, romance, humour, and weirdness – sometimes all of these things at once - with verve and an undisguised joy at the tenets of the swashbuckling genre in its French (original) version. Where many a director in 1997 would have swathed the film in irony or would have tried to grim and gritty it up, de Broca approaches the genre he’s working in with a beautiful lack of cynicism. It’s not that he’s a stranger to irony – there is some very funny business concerning the literacy of the French nobility and the curious mixture of assholishness and kindness of some of its members for example. This just isn’t a film made by someone who wants to distance himself from the swashbuckler in any way, shape, or form. Instead, this is a film that wallows in all that’s awesome about the genre without even seeing the need to excuse itself for its love for something so out of fashion.

The director is rewarded for this approach by an ensemble of actors very much taking on the same spirit, with Daniel Auteuil turning out to be just perfect as Lagardère with a display of good humour, emotional heat and actual human warmth that makes him a pretty irresistible hero. Luchini makes Gonzague a villain who is not much of a physical threat (one has one’s henchmen for this sort of thing, after all) but seems the perfect as somebody who became an evil mastermind first out of what seemed to him necessity (and perhaps even love) only to then realize how much he liked it, in due course becoming ever more twisted and grotesque on the inside without ever looking grotesque (which ironically enough, makes the character very human). While Gillain projects innocence and a degree of naivety she also comes over as someone who is quite capable of taking care of herself.

Now, some contemporary viewers might be rather miffed by the film not changing the central romance being between a young woman and her foster father. The way the film plays it, one never really gets the impression that being unfatherly loved by his foster child is anything the man planned for, or wanted, or even thought about, so I can’t say I found myself even raising my eyebrows much at the film. These are, after all, imaginary people living in an imaginary swashbuckling early 18th Century mainly driven by romance and intrigue, so I can’t bring myself to tut at their ways, even if they are a bit incestuous.

Anyway, apart from being all swashbuckling, melodramatic fun, Le bossu also happens to be a feat of beautiful filmmaking, with many a shot inspired by contemporary painting, full of inspired sets and locations, and including many an incredible scene like de Nevers’s last stand and the sequence that leads up to it, the chaos of the banking street, and so on, and so forth. It’s joyful, is what I’m saying.

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