France in the early 18th Century, during the reign of Louis XIV. Philippe de Nevers (Hubert Noel) and Isabelle de Caylus (Sabine Sesselmann) have secretly married, despite traditional hatred between their families. They have already produced one child, a baby daughter named Aurore. Isabelle has somehow managed to hide the little girl away in the very same building where she lives with her father. Either, Aurore is a peculiarly silent baby girl, or Isabelle’s dad is a bit deaf.
De Nevers confides the situation to his uncle, Duc Philippe de Gonzague (Francois Chaumett), hoping Gonzague might sway the king who in turn might sway the Marquis de Caylus towards accepting his and Isabelle’s marriage. Unfortunately, de Gonzague is not a man to be trusted, particularly when only Philippe is standing between him and the de Nevers family fortune, so he uses an opportunity opened by the secret of the lovers to have de Nevers and his daughter assassinated. The fiend’s men succeed in de Nevers’s case but the rather gallant and eminently helpful Henri de Lagardère and his comic relief servant Passepoil (Bourvil) save baby Aurore and flee with her to Spain. On their way (and afterwards) our heroes are not only hunted by whatever scoundrels Gonzague can come up with, but also the King’s men, for Gonzague has managed put de Nevers’s death on Lagardère’s head.
After some adventures and fifteen years, Aurore (now also played by Sabine Sesselmann) has grown up into a beautiful young woman, leading to the foster father and foster child kind of love story between her and Lagardère most modern audiences run away from screaming, but that I’m willing to accept with a shrug.
Lagardère decides that it’s time for Aurore to be able to take her rightful place (and return to her mother so that mum can approve of a marriage for them), and for Gonzague to get his just deserts. For some reasons, Lagardère’s plans to put things to rights include disguising himself as an elderly hunchback and getting a lot of hunchback rubs from Gonzague. Now, I’m usually not someone to look down upon anyone’s kinks, but seriously, Monsieur Lagardère, what the hell?
It’s one of the more unfair aspects of genre film history that the great French swashbucklers of the 50s are rarely seen outside the French language space, for the best of them (at least going by the subtitled films I’ve seen) stand on the same level as Hollywood’s best swashbucklers of the era. It can’t have helped the films’ historical position that some of the genre’s best directors in France, like Le Bossu‘s André Hunebelle, were particularly disliked by the nouvelle vague filmmakers and critics. Not needing to fight the theoretical battles of decades ago – battles which always look rather childish and petulant to me, I have to admit – fortunately means I can enjoy the films of the nouvelle vague directors and those of their sworn enemies.
There is, one has to admit, a certain stiffness surrounding Hunebelle’s directorial approach here, a willingness to be lavish and serious in a very old-fashioned way that is anathema to the (in the beginning) much more improvisational nouvelle vague style of filmmaking, as well as to any naturalistic approaches, but it’s also a natural approach to the particular kind of escapism the swashbuckler trades in. It’s a perspective that treats history as a playground for the kind of story that tends to treat even the greatest hardships the genre’s protagonists go through with a certain levity, and that will always result in a happy ending.
If you ask me, this kind of escapism is not a bad thing, particularly because escapism by its very nature always carries the knowledge that there’s something worth escaping from with it; showing us wish fulfilment fantasies also means understanding what we wish for. The wish to see some clear good to win over some clear evil may be naive when mapped onto the complexities of real world politics, but it is a part of human imagination whose existence can’t be denied.
Anyway, Hunebelle was quite a master at the sort of historical fantasy we know as the swashbuckler, using the fact that he’s actually filming in the country his film takes place in (and the existence of an actual budget for his project) to put some impressive locations and mood-setting landscape shots in a genre that is often rather set-bound (though there are of course numerous colourful sets on display here, too), and showing a sure hand for the all-important timing. There’s not just never a dull moment on screen but never a moment that doesn’t contain something exciting or interesting (one suspects that’s pretty much a technique Paul Feval, the author of the much-filmed novel the book is based on, and one of the most important writers to run with the genre after Dumas, would approve of).
Not even Bourvil’s comic relief is too painful. I could rather have lived without it, obviously, but then I never wished for him to be slowly, and painfully tortured to death, so we can add his treatment to the film’s positives (even though I’m not a fan of the classism that can only use the “low-born” as comic relief).
As a hero, Marais has slightly less charm and slightly more gravitas than the Stewart Granger/Errol Flynn type of swashbuckling hero, but he does have the all-important charisma, and looks good in his action scenes (even those parts not done by a stunt double), which is really all you’d ever want from the hero of a swashbuckler. It’s also really funny to see people with a low tolerance for this sort of thing squirm when Sabine Sesselmann makes lovey eyes at him but that might just be an effect of my particular sense of humour, and my utter lack of a moralizing backbone when it comes to love.
So please repeat after me: “If you don’t come to Largardère, Lagardère will come to you!”
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?