Thursday, January 28, 2010


[Reprinted from Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...?]

Lagardère, a lowly sword-for-hire, develops an unlikely friendship with Phillippe the Duc de Nevers, who has to his name plenty of money, a devious and dastardly cousin, Comte du Gonzague, a deadly fencing move called "la botte de Nevers" and a brand new baby courtesy of duchess Blanche du Caylus. If Phillippe marries Blanche, then their baby will become the heir to all that is Nevers and Gonzague will find himself with only a generous pension. Phillippe and Lagardère travel to Caylus but are attacked along the way by Gonzague’s men. Lagardère doesn’t know the Comte, but does recognize the scarlet kerchief of the deadly Peyrolles, so stays behind to hold off the assassins, giving Phillippe time to escape. The Duc de Nevers arrives and marries Blanche but before he can consummate the wedding, Gonzague and Peyrolles sneak into the castle and murder the entire wedding party. Phillippe is stabbed in the back by a masked Gonzague but Lagardère arrives just in time to “brand” the assassin—stabbing him through the hand and vowing vengeance: Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi! ("If you don't come to Largardère, Lagardère will come to you!")

Fleeing with the infant—a girl and not the boy Phillippe had hoped for—he fakes their death with the help of a traveling troupe of Italian actors and remains with them for the next sixteen years. Meanwhile, the baby, Aurore, has grown into a beautiful young woman who develops unusual feelings towards the man she believes to be her father. Unable to avoid Paris forever, the troupe performs in the heart of the city and Gonzague discovers that Lagardère is still alive. You see, the “Nevers Attack” is a very specific fencing move that results in the thrust of one’s sword between the eyes of the assailant. Phillippe taught this move to Legardere and he, in turn, taught it to Aurore. When she uses the move to fend off a would-be rapist, the jig, as the French do not say, is up.

Lagardère is driven into hiding once again—this time disguised as a hunchback accountant to Gonzague himself! Gonzague is hoping to amass another small fortune in American Louisiana, selling land along the Mississippi. Lagardère, discovering that Blanche is still alive and wealthy, though half-mad in a convent, the Chevalier conspires to bring about a happy ending to everyone (save, of course, Gonzague).

While no more or less complicated than Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, On Guard (adapted from the 1858 novel by Paul Féval, père) is a rousing, exciting and very clever movie starring Daniel Auteuil, Marie Gillain and Vincent Perez. The film belongs entirely to Auteuil, however, who can be both brave, foolish, clever, sad and comical all at the same time. For swashbuckling fans, here’s your new favorite movie, for hardly ten minutes goes by without a duel and by the end, you’ll be able to perform the “Nevers Attack” on your own, stabbing through foreheads to your heart’s delight!

For modern audiences, the subplot of Lagardère and Aurore falling in love might make one a bit uncomfortable, seeing as how, while he isn’t her biological father, he did raise her his entire life. The semi-incestual considerations aren’t really addressed as Lagardère is more concerned with the fact that by restoring Aurore to her noble position, he’ll remain as “a nobody”, with no title, no status and no money. Aurore, as a naïve teenager, sees only hopeless romance in poverty with this dashing man she’s known her whole life.

If you can get past the above and just chalk it up to “it’s the times they lived in”, you’ll have no trouble with On Guard as it never fails to be charming and thrilling and touching.

Naturally, the movie was given a limited release in the U.S., Koch-Lorber assuming once again that “subtitles equal death” at the box office. It is available commercially on DVD with a handsome transfer and gorgeous audio—the score is almost a character in and of itself, accompanying Lagardère through all his adventures.

The novel, Le bossu, was published fourteen years after Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and helped firmly establish the swordplay action subgenre ("roman de cape et d'épée"). In fact, so popular was the novel that Lagardère’s vow, Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!, became a proverb in French language. Do yourself a favor and hunt this one down. 

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