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With: Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Perez, Fabrice Luchini, Marie Gillain, Yann Collette, Jean-François Stévenin, Didier Pain, Claire Nebout, Philippe Noiret, Charlie Nelson, Jacques Sereys, Renato Scarpa, Ludovica Tinghi, James Thiérrée, Sacha Bourdo
Written by: Philippe de Broca, Jean Cosmos, Jérôme Tonnerre, based on a book by Paul Féval
Directed by: Philippe de Broca
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 128
Date: 12/03/1997

On Guard (1997)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Getting the Point

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Philippe de Broca once made a notorious cult film, King of Hearts, that became a hit on the mid-1970s midnight movie circuit. In that film, Alan Bates plays a Scottish soldier separated from his unit who wanders into a small French village populated entirely by escapees from a nearby asylum. The film outraged and fascinated viewers everywhere and became an enormous hit.

De Broca hasn't made much noise since, and it's still a bit curious how his 1997 film Le Bossu was dusted off, re-titled On Guard and given a fresh 2002 theatrical release. It opens today at the Opera Plaza.

On Guard turns out to be a nifty swashbuckler whose plot could easily have been lifted from any number of Douglas Fairbanks silent pictures. In fact it's difficult to see the irreverent de Broca anywhere in the film -- until the ending, that is.

The ever-present Daniel Auteuil (seen recently on these shores in Sade, The Closet, The Widow of St. Pierre and Girl on the Bridge) stars as the rascal Lagardère, who loves nothing more than to scrap with equally matched swordsmen. He challenges the Duke's heir, the Duc de Nevers (Vincent Perez), and, thanks to the famous, patented "Nevers Attack," loses.

Nevers' scheming, reptile-like cousin Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini) dearly wants to inherit the dukehood and the fortune and land that goes with it, and so he hires Lagard�re to try and kill Nevers. Instead Nevers and Lagardère bond and join forces, and Lagardère learns the secret of the "Nevers Attack," which leads to some pretty cool swordfights.

It turns out that Nevers' girlfriend is pregnant, and if he marries her, his throne is safe three times over. But if Gonzague can prevent this marriage, or kill everyone involved, he can rule.

Lagardère manages to save the child, just as Gonzague succeeds in killing his cousin. But Lagardère vows revenge, goes into hiding for 18 years and raises Nevers' daughter Aurore (Marie Gillain) into adulthood.

At this point, On Guard echoed the freshness and vividness of The Princess Bride, but without tongue planted so firmly in cheek.

Hot on the trail, Lagardère disguises himself as a hunchback and goes to work as an accountant for Gonzague, attacking from within the ranks. He finds Nevers' wife, alive and locked away in the castle, and he fills her in on the past 18 years.

But Lagardère faces his biggest challenge yet when Aurore finds out that he is not her real father, and falls in love with him!

And that's the Philippe de Broca twist. Sure, the handsomely hangdog Auteuil and the stunning Gillain make a good couple, but how Freudian can you get? Yet de Broca simply weaves this perverse storyline into his movie as if it were nothing unusual.

Besides that, On Guard plays like a clear-cut, whiz-bang adventure flick. Indeed, nearly every plot twist unfolds in an entirely visual manner, just like one of those Fairbanks silents I mentioned. I could almost see Fairbanks himself in the Lagardère role, with the few confusing shards of plot explained away with brief, snappy intertitles.

And still, the film takes itself fairly seriously and does not throw its thrills away with winking irony or self-reflexive stopping points.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder how Aurore manages to grow from a baby into a lovely young woman while all the other characters remain about the same age. Must be something in that 18th century water.

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