REVIEW: DVD Release: Le Bossu

Film: Le Bossu
Release date: 4th October 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 124 mins
Director: Philippe de Broca
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Perez, Marie Gillain, Yann Collette
Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama
Studio: Second Sight
Format: DVD
Country: France

An adaptation of Paul Feval’s 19th century historical novel, Phillippe de Broca directed the 1997 French film version of Le Bossu (The Hunchback). A lavish and handsome production, Le Bossu (released in some English speaking countries under the title On Guard) provides much in the way of buckle and swash; mixing real historical elements from its early 18th century setting in France with added drama and adventurous derring-do thrown in.

Forming a friendship with the famous French swordsman the Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez), Lagardere (Daniel Auteuil) follows his friend and sword fighting mentor as the Duke travels to remote countryside to marry the mother of his infant daughter Aurore (Marie Gillain). However, Nevers’ dastardly cousin Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini) stands to lose his inheritance of the Duke’s fortunes with the discovery of Aurore’s birth, and ruthlessly orders the killing of the Duke and his entire wedding party.

Gonzague takes Nevers’ devastated would-be wife as his own, and lands the killing blade stroke to Nevers when he is not looking. Yet, unbeknownst to Gonzague (who assumes the pair drowned), Lagardere survives the onslaught of the henchmen and saves Aurore from harm. Before Gonzague gets away from the scene, Lagardere manages to brand his hand with a mark from his blade, so that he may recognise the perpetrator of his master’s downfall. As he lies near death, the Duke of Nevers requests vengeance by Lagardere on his behalf, no matter how long it may take him to achieve.

With sixteen passing years, Lagardere has brought up Aurore and passes on the legendary secret of the ‘Nevers Attack’ sword thrust. Concealed within a travelling troupe, Lagardere and Aurore live peacefully until the devious Gonzague discovers that they are still alive, and sends his scarred main henchman Peyrolles (Yann Collette) to hunt them down. Yet the wily Lagardere has a trick up his sleeve to finally gain vengeance for his friend the Duke, gaining Gonzague’s confidence in his guise as a hunchbacked financier, with the aim to reclaim the Duke’s estate in the name of the rightful heiress Aurore…

A major part of the success (in addition to some of the excess) of director Phillippe de Broca’s Le Bossu lies in the sumptuous period styling of the film, with a shine on the screen and bright colours of the Duke’s splendour shot by cinematographer Jean-Francois Robin (along with costume design by Christian Gasc) feeling wonderfully evocative of Enlightenment era France. This backdrop adds to the sense of peril and adventure in the film, as well as adding an almost mythical fairytale-esque glow to the events and swashbuckling proceedings.

Daniel Auteuil gives a stirring performance as the heroic Lagardere, who is following in the footsteps of Vincent Perez’s ridiculously charismatic Duke of Nevers. Le Bossu’s numerous sword fighting scenes, featuring multiple onscreen characters, are certainly extremely well choreographed, where the style of the legendary ‘Nevers Attack’ is a suitably heroic movement with gruesome visual consequences.

However, despite the Le Bossu’s extravagant stylings and highly enjoyable swordplay, de Broca’s film never feels quite sure of its dramatic intentions, and occasionally crosses into somewhat parodic territory. The performances of the lead actors (whilst played sincerely) come across in a fairly pantomimic fashion, undoubtedly accentuated by the over-the-top (yet no less impressive) period setting. While Auteuil’s performance is gleeful and entertaining, some smaller dramatic moments with Marie Gillain’s Aurore are also somewhat stilted.

Fabrice Luchini is highly engaging as the scheming baddie of the story in a way that is reminiscent of a French language version of Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Yet, consequently, the over-the-top elements of the character feel rather pantomimic, and Luchini’s character Gonzague lacks real menace despite his foul deeds and extroverted villainy. For instance, Lagardere is able to infiltrate the inner workings of Gonzague’s operation by using his penchant for hunchbacked servants against him, successfully going under the guise of a hunchback financier. Gonzague’s main henchman Peyrolles (a wonderfully disconcerting Yann Collette) is also blatantly villainous in appearance, serving as the scarred and twisted muscle behind Gonzague’s plots to kill off his nemeses.

Despite these eccentricities, Le Bossu remains consistently enjoyable throughout its two-hour running time. The superb sword fighting set pieces and adventurous scope almost compensate for the film’s misgivings, and allow the viewer to be transported to a time of heroism and rumbustiousness in a significantly heightened crowd-pleasing way.

An entertaining swashbuckling romp, Philippe de Broca’s Le Bossu portrays a painterly view of 18th century France in lavish sets and locations. Daniel Auteuil is a charming rogue in his portrayal of Lagardere (although perhaps Gerard Depardieu was too busy filming Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Man In The Iron Mask to take the role at the time), where Fabrice Luchini and Yann Collette are suitably devious as the villains of the piece. An enjoyable, audacious and fun-filled adventure. DB

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