On Guard

on March 20, 1997 by Wade Major
   Let it be said that no one does adaptations of great literature quite like the French, and no Frenchman does it with more panache than Philippe de Broca. His latest, “On Guard!”, based on Paul Feval's popular 1857 serialized swashbuckler “Le Bossu” (“The Hunchback”), stays true to form, spinning its epic tale of chivalry and treachery with a gargantuan gusto certain to thrill and delight audiences in all corners of the globe.

   One of the most splendid entertainments to emerge from the French film industry in years, the $30 million “On Guard!” also features one of the most prestigious ensembles of French talent ever assembled for one project.

   Set in the waning days of the 17th century, the film tells the story of Lagardere (Daniel Auteuil), a master swordsman turned renegade after his lord, the Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez), is assassinated by his own cousin, the greedy Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini). Gonzague's intended mission of eliminating all of the Duke's heirs other than himself, however, is foiled when Lagardere rescues the Duke's infant daughter Aurore, raising her as his own until the day of restitution arrives.

   Along with his contemporaries, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, Feval embraced a heroic literary ethic that has long been popular with filmmakers. “Le Bossu,” in particular, has proven a noteworthy favorite, filmed no fewer than five times previously (the most recent by Andre Hunebelle in 1959). But even the best of these scarcely compares to the achievement of “On Guard!”, a credit to both de Broca's artistry and Auteuil's magnetism.

   Like Cyrano de Bergerac, D'Artagnan and the Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one, Auteuil's Lagardere is an irresistible hero, a paragon of nobility and passion surrounded by a spectacle of near perfection, complete with intrigue, action, mystery, suspense and romance. Supporting actors are all similarly outstanding, including memorable turns by Philippe Noiret as the king's Regent and Marie Gillain as the feisty teenaged Aurore.

   Most importantly, “On Guard!” represents a new level of mastery for de Broca, whose skill with period pageantry here surpasses even his own previous work on “Cartouche” and “Chouans!.” Technical credits are equally impressive, including Oscar-caliber contributions from composer Philippe Sarde, costumer Christian Gasc, cinematographer Jean-Francois Robin and art director Bernard Vezat.

   Lest there be any lingering doubt as to de Broca's status as a world-class auteur, “On Guard!” provides the answer. Starring Daniel Auteuil, Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Perez, Marie Gillain, Philippe Noiret and Claire Nebout. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Written by Philippe de Broca, Jean Cosmos and Jerome Tonnerre. Produced by Patrick Godeau. An Empire release. Action/Drama. Unrated. Running time: 128 min

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