Sunday 20 December 2020

Holiday Fun - John Baxter revives memories of the French cinema's specialty, swordplay - LE BOSSU/ON GUARD (Philippe de Broca, 1997)

Philippe de Broca

Is stage fencing even taught any longer in acting school?  Until about twenty years ago, swordmasters like Bill Hobbs continued to work, despite a dwindling call for their services in a cinema where swordplay consists of hacking at one another with digital broomsticks.  Happily, we can still admire the expertise of Basil Rathbone, who did all his own fights in such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, the agility of champion tumbler Dave Sharpe, Gene Kelly’s double in the more acrobatic feats of The Three Musketeers, and Fred and Albert Cavens, father and son swordsmen who battled one another in The Prisoner of Zenda.

             That the craft didn’t die entirely is largely down to the French, and to Philippe de Broca in particular.  When Steven Spielberg confessed to François Truffaut that his favourite French film was Broca’s comedy adventure L’Homme de Rio, aka That Man From Rio,Truffaut wasn’t impressed.  Broca, Truffaut’s assistant on Les Quatre Cent Coups,had emerged as the clown of the nouvelle vague. While the debut films of Godard, Chabrol and the other boys in the band viewed existence obliquely and with existential doubt, Broca’s Le Farceur(1960)began with Jean-Pierre Cassel emerging from a girl’s bedroom via a sky-light and escaping across the roofs to breakfast with his eccentric family who make their living modeling as murder victims for a newspaper feature on Great Assassinations. 

            Broca went on to direct a string of action comedies, the gem of which, by common consent, is the 1962 Cartouche. Seldom had swash been so colourfully and stylishly buckled. It wasn’t until 1997 that he again evoked the France of the early 1700s  with similar richness and vigour, but the wait was worth it. 

Daniel Auteuil and the Nevers Thrust
Le Bossu

Le Bossu – literally “The Hunchback”– isa delicious exercise in cap et épée adapted from an 1857 novel by one of the rivals of Alexandre Dumas père, Paul Féval. The French traditionally regard hunchbacks as lucky with money. Until recently, sufferers loitered outside casinos, selling the opportunity to rub their back for luck.  (Jack Buchanan does so in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1930 Monte Carlo.)  Financiers employed themas accountants, a loophole exploited by the protagonist of Le Bossuto infiltrate the villain’s inner circle.  

            Though filmed in 1923, 1934, 1944 with Pierre Blanchar and 1959 with Jean Marais, the story is relatively unknown outside France, probably because it’s perceived as poor taste to exploit a handicap - though this hasn’t harmed the many versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Nevertheless, to protect Anglophone sensibilities, the English version of Broca’s version was retitled On Guard!

            Le Bossu  revolves around swordplay. Broca begins in a salle des armes  where fencers practice in unison the traditional positions of l’escrime. Among them is the dashing Duke de Nevers (Vincent Perez), famous for the deadly “Nevers Thrust” that kills with a point between the eyes.  Another fencer, Lagardere (Daniel Auteuil), challenges  him to demonstrate the manoeuvre. 

Vincent Perez as the Duc de Nevers
Daniel Auteuil as LaGardere

Watching from the shadows is the duke’s sinister cousin, Count Philippe de Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini).  Gonzague manages the fortune that he expects to inherit, and hides the fact that the duke’s former girlfriend has given birth to a new heir.  Nevers does find out, however, and, with Lagardere, now his friend, crosses France to marry her, only to be murdered by Gonzague. Lagardere escapes with the baby, joins a troupe of actors, and raises her as his own daughter. Disguised as a bossu, he infiltrates Gonzague’s business and wrecks it before killing him in a duel with – of course – the Nevers Thrust.

            Broca fills his period films with authentic detail.Lagardere takes refuge in the Cour des Miracles, that corner of the Marais, also described in Notre Dame de Paris,where, at the end of a hard day’s begging, the missing limbs of the mutilated miraculously reappear and the apparently blind regain their sight. The revolution of 1789 outlawed trading in shares but until then certain streets were Paris’s stock exchanges. Lagardere sidles among the speculators in his bossu costume, murmuring the few incendiary words that will ignite a panic and ruin Gonzague. 

             Marie Gillain is sweet as the grown-up heiress, Aurore, if no match for the incandescent Claudia Cardinale in Cartouche,even when she despatches a would-be rapist with the Nevers manoeuvre. Auteuil’s Lagardere, short, low-born, street-wise and bad-tempered, is a Harvey Keitel clone. He and Perez make amusing bedfellows – literally so, when they have to share one on the road and the duke casually enquires of a startled Lagardere “Are you into sodomy at all?” So that’s why one of the most admired figures of French swashbuckling cinema is called Fanfan la Tulipe.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.