Friday, May 16, 2008

En Garde!

Did you know there are French movies that don't have Jean Reno or Gerard Depardieu in them? And some of them are damn good.

For some reason I seem to have been watching a lot of French historical dramas recently. That's one of the nice things about the Tesco DVD rental service, you just list a load of obscure movies you wouldn't mind seeing some time, and they randomly pop through your door every so often, and you end up seeing all sorts of things that you wouldn't buy, don't turn up on the telly, and aren't likely to be in your local Blockbuster. The French seem to be making some of the best historical dramas of recent years: they are usually sumptuously photographed, with stunning scenery and costumes, and beautifully produced. Le Pacte des Loups, in particular, is simply unmissable. (Really. If you haven't seen it, do so.)

I grabbed Le Bossu, (The Hunchback aka En Garde!) after seeing La Reine Margot , largely because of the two male leads, Daniel Auteuil and Vincent Perez. Perez is probably familiar to English & American audiences from The Crow II or Queen of the Damned: here, he is a very different character, the aristocratic, and initially slightly pompous, Duc de Nevers.

Le Bossu is possibly the best swashbuckler since the glory days of Errol Flynn. The sword fights are a sheer delight to any fencing fan. Arguably, the duel on the clifftop in Princess Bride is the best sword fight ever filmed, but the fights in this movie are truly awesome. It's like watching Stewart Granger in Scaramouche, Ronald Colman, and all the Musketeers rolled into one. These don't feel like Hollywood fights - though of course they are cinematically unrealistic in their own way. They are genuinely thrilling, and will have you on the edge of your seat. The sword is a real killing weapon, not some poncy stick, and these guys know what they're doing with them.

But there's more to Le Bossu than just swordplay. The story is simple enough, taken from a novel by Paul Feval, published in 1858, a contemporary of Dumas. (Feval is an interesting character, who was one of the earliest pioneers of both vampire fiction and the detective novel as well as a prolific writer of swashbucklers. He predated Stoker's Dracula, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. Pretty impressive. Go read the Wikipedia entry about him.)

Set in the early 18th century, we have a nobleman who schemes to take his cousin's land, a loyal retainer who vows to save the Duke's daughter, people in disguise, chases, and all the other ingredients of a good Dumas-style plot. It's beautifully acted, gorgeously shot, has perfect music, and holds your attention for two hours with ease. Marie Gillain, as the Duke's daughter, makes a wonderful heroine, and even she gets in on the action at times. It's funny, it's exciting, and it's emotional. What else can you ask of a film?

If you enjoy a fine swashbuckler, and a classic tale of revenge, then give this one a go. There's no dubbed version, though - you'll have to brave the subtitles. But it's worth it. If you liked The Duellists, this is a must-see movie.

No comments: