- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

It would have been preferable to encounter Philippe de Broca’s “On Guard” closer to its original release date in 1998. At that time one might have welcomed the film, now available in a DVD edition, as a French counterpart to “The Mask of Zorro,” which shares numerous thematic and stylistic affinities with Mr. de Broca’s deft and invigorating swashbuckler.

A starring vehicle for Daniel Auteuil, usually associated with introspective and contemporary roles, “On Guard” is set during the first quarter of the 18th century. An amusing subplot involves unscrupulous land speculation in the Louisiana Territory.

The movie made its way belatedly into American distribution and received friendly reviews in New York and Los Angeles. It failed to secure an art-house booking in the Washington area.

Mr. de Broca is one of the venerable and still active survivors of the New Wave resurgence in French filmmaking two generations ago. Initially an assistant to the better-known Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, he directed a flurry of beguiling, sound-alike romantic comedies that brightened the early 1960s: “The Love Game,” “The Joker” and “The Five-Day Lover.” In their wake, the director guided Jean-Paul Belmondo into lighthearted action spectacle, with a period setting in “Cartouche” and with modern Brazil as the backdrop in “That Man From Rio.” The director’s greatest art-house success in the United States was a sentimental freak: “King of Hearts,” which struck a pacifistic soft spot during the antiwar upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Busy in television when feature projects dry up, Mr. de Broca has completed a new feature and seems to be going strong at age 71. From the outset, his touch has been so smooth that it’s been rather easy for critics to dismiss him as a skillful trifler. Always assured with pacing, composition and stellar personalities, he embodies an ideal of reliably entertaining professionalism rather than painful obsession or aspiration.

“On Guard” derives from a popular novel called “Le Bossu,” or “The Hunchback,” an allusion to more than one character but an element of the plot that needs to be protected from premature disclosure. The story begins in a fencing academy where Mr. Auteuil’s Lagardere, an adopted son of the management, seeks pointers from the fabled Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez), who has perfected a seven-step tactic of lethal ingenuity, contrived to culminate with a thrust between the eyes.

Although a belligerent pest, Lagardere proves useful to the duke in a way that earns him an impulsive promotion to companion and bodyguard during a trip to the high country. The nobleman intends to reunite with his sweetheart Blanche (Claire Nebout), but the treachery of a cousin and factotum named Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini, one of the more distinctive and diverting villains of recent years) transforms joy into calamity. Lagardere is left a fugitive with the grave obligation of avenging his benefactor.

This task requires another generation. An orphan himself, Lagardere must become an adoptive father while hiding his identity and biding his time. A troupe of Italian actors who specialize in commedia dell’arte provides him with friendly concealment, plus a talent for masquerade that is eventually indispensable to unmasking Gonzague as a bloodthirsty usurper.

Given the dual emphasis on fencing skills and disguises, Lagardere would be a difficult role to resist. Mr. Auteuil certainly flourishes in its extroverted heroic promise.

The overall sense of streamlined imitation of Dumas is wittily imposed and sustained by Mr. de Broca. Better late than never, “On Guard” could enhance any moviegoing weekend in which the new titles leave something to be desired.


TITLE: “On Guard”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with occasional violence in an 18th-century setting; fleeting nudity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Philippe de Broca. Screenplay by Jean Cosmos and Mr. de Broca, based on the novel “Le Bossu” by Paul Feval. Cinematography by Jean-Francois Robin. Production design by Bernard Vezat. Costume design by Christian Gasc. Music by Philippe Sarde. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes

DVD EDITION: Koch Lorber Films


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