On Guard!

(Le Bossu)

After the horror that was The Musketeer, it's great to watch a movie like On Guard!, which takes a good old-fashioned approach to making a big swashbuckling epic with a little bit of everything thrown in for fun. Fun is the best way to describe the film, which places a high value on entertaining the viewer. This is a sweeping saga that brings to mind titles stories like Les Miserables or Great Expectations (although the quality of On Guard! is much lower), where things take years to unravel. This may be the case because the movie is based on the novel Le Bossu by Paul Feval, written way back in 1857 when these kinds of stories were in their heyday. There's friendship, blood oaths, revenge, fratricide, political intrigue, corporate greed, insane women, hunchbacks, traveling circuses, duels, guns, and yes, even near-incest. The last element is the one distasteful thing in this movie, and to be picky, it is not exactly real incest, but close enough that it makes the viewer uncomfortable. It just proves again that the French are wacky. And for whatever reason, it took four years for this film to arrive across the pond, although it was nominated for a bevy of awards at the 1998 Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars).

The action begins with young Legardere (Daniel Auteuil, The Closet, The Widow of St. Pierre), a brash young swordsman. He is highly skilled, and enjoys challenging his peers to prove his prowess. He catches the attention of the Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez, Queen of the Damned, Bride of the Wind), a famed swordsman and close relative to the Duke of Orleans. Nevers easily trumps Legardere, who then wants a rematch and wants to learn his secret attacks. Legardere later agrees to work for an assassin, and later learns the target is Nevers. Nevers convinces Legardere to join him instead, and the two begin forming a strong friendship. Nevers doesn't know that his cousin, Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini, Rien sur Robert, Keep It Quiet) is the one behind the assassination attempts. Gonzague is the only heir to Nevers, and wants the money now. So when Nevers learns that he has a daughter, he goes off to marry Blanche (Claire Nebout, New Dawn, Venus Beauty Institute) with Legardere in tow and Gonzague and his assassins following closely behind.

Although telling what happens here may spoil part of the story, it sets in motion the events of the second half of the film. Nevers is killed, and Legardere escapes with his infant daughter. He raises her as his own, and soon Aurore (Marie Gillain, Le Diner, Barnie's Minor Annoyance) is sixteen. She adores her father, who swore an oath to avenger Nevers' death, no matter how long it took. Legardere and Aurore travel with a circus, and when they return to Paris, he realizes that Blanche is alive and that Gonzague is near, so he beings his plot to reclaim Aurore's inheritance. It's a marvelously complex and ingenious plan, along the same lines of the Edmond Dantes character in Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Director Phillipe de Broca (The Greenhouse, The Keys to Paradise) makes it extremely entertaining watching Legardere's plan slowly unfurl.

Auteuil is one of France's most popular and gifted actors, and he does a great job here going from impulsive young man to thoughtful parent (although he was probably a little too old to portray a young Legardere). Gillain is also a lot of fun to watch; she has the same feistiness and tomboyish quality that all women in these movies seem to have. Adapters de Broca, Jean Cosmos (An Air So Pure, Captain Conan) and Jerome Tonnerre (Alissa, The King of Paris) pack in a lot of story in two hours, and still manage to keep things moving quite briskly, and On Guard! is beautifully shot. Everything quickly marches towards grand showdown between Legardere and Gonzague, and it is definitely worth watching to see what happens. Well, except for the last shot, which will induce cringes in any normal person.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hour, French with English subtitles, Not rated but contains some violence, language, and minor nudity, an R or possibly PG-13.

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