Among the French New Wave pioneers, Philippe de Broca is the least serious, bringing a breath of fresh air to the romantic comedy and injecting the adventure movie -- most famously "That Man from Rio" with Jean-Paul Belmondo -- with an inspired, irreverent comic touch. Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, De Broca was an art-house staple but then faded from American screens.
He kept on working, though less frequently and mainly in TV, so it is a pleasure and surprise to have his 1998 "On Guard!" surface at last and prove to be arguably his most substantial film. De Broca has kept his light touch in bringing to the screen the 1857 roman-feuilleton, a novel commissioned for newspaper publication in serial form. "Le Bossu" (The Hunchback) was written by Paul Féval, a contemporary of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
Indeed, "On Guard!" has been made much in the same spirit as Richard Lester's 1974 version of "The Three Musketeers" in that it has been made by a filmmaker with a sense of humor and an affection for the swashbuckler; but resisting the easy spoof, De Broca has made it as emotionally engaging as it is amusing.
This is crucial, for the Regency-era "On Guard!," an enchanting, richly detailed period piece, is an epic tale of love and revenge. The time is the turn of the 17th century, with the devil-may-care Lagardère (Daniel Auteuil) emerging as one of the finest swordsman in the land. He crosses swords with the dashing, handsome Duc de Nevers (Vincent Perez), whom he ends up serving.
A brilliant, innovative fighter all but illiterate, Nevers is a nobleman of hauteur and naivete. He has taken under his wing an impoverished, homely cousin Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini), whose true love, Blanche de Caylus (Claire Nebout), he blithely stole for a brief fling before she returned to her father's distant castle. Just as casually he resists Gonzague's plea to invest in the stock offering by another relative, the Regent Philippe d'Orleans (Philippe Noiret), nephew of the late Louis XIV, to finance the colonization of the Louisiana Territory. To Nevers, such an investment smacks of the shopkeeper mentality; besides, he'll probably die soon enough in a duel, allowing his cousin, his sole heir, to do what he wants with his fortune.
After Nevers learns that Blanche has given birth to their child, Lagardère insists on accompanying the duke on his journey to restore her honor.
Thus far the rollicking gusto brings back fond memories of De Broca's "Cartouche" of 40 years ago, but tragedy turns "On Guard!" into a revenge odyssey.
Even as it deepens with pathos, "On Guard!" never loses its energy and humor, growing ever more gallant in spirit.
As one of the foremost actors of his generation, Auteuil easily embraces the athleticism, wit and cunning of Lagardère, who eventually assumes the disguise that provides the French title.
"On Guard!" is a splendid entertainment, young in spirit but accomplished in all aspects with the fullness of spirit and sense of ease that comes only with experience.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Standard swashbuckler swordplay
Daniel Auteuil ... Lagardère/Le Bossu
Fabrice Luchini ... Gonzague
Vincent Perez ... Nevers
Philippe Noiret ... Philippe d'Orleans
An Empire Pictures release of an Alicéléo production. Director Philippe de Broca. Producer Patrick Godeau. Executive producer Françoise Galfre. Screenplay by De Broca and Jean Cosmos. Cinematographer Jean-François Robin. Editor Henri Lange. Music Philippe Sarde. Costumes Christian Gasc. Art director Bernard Vezat. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
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