The late French filmmaker Philippe de Broca is probably best known in the U.S. for making the ’60s cult film King of Hearts, although he has a career that spanned more than half a century. The relatively new arthouse distributor Cohen Film Collection recently put out a Blu-ray double feature of de Broca’s spy spoofs, That Man from Rio and Up to His Ears, and now they have paired up two more flicks from his vast filmography: the 1997 swashbuckling adventure On Guard and the 1961 infidelity-centered romance Five Day Lover.
The gently irreverent spirit that infused Richard Lester’s mid-’70s Three Musketeers movies is resurrected in On Guard (French title: Le bossu, or “The Hunchback” — more on that later). Although it’s not a straight-up comedy or spoof, On Guard tends to treat its convoluted and faintly ridiculous story as nothing more than an elegant bit of fun.
Daniel Auteuil, of Jean de Florette and Michael Haneke’s Caché, stars as a rakish swordsman who is too poor to even afford a first name. He is known by his hometown: Lagardère. Early in the film,Lagardère befriends a ladies-man of a duke, Nevers (Vincent Perez), so that he can learn the duke’s signature fencing technique: a bit of flim-flammery that climaxes with the victim getting a blade right between the eyes. (As if to make certain no one mistakenly tags this film as “family friendly,” de Broca makes the head-stabbing disconcertingly bloody.) This sword technique comes in handy sooner than later, when the Duke de Nevers and Lagardère are ambushed at the young duke’s wedding reception by a plotting cousin, the Comte de Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini). Gonzague doesn’t want the Nevers fortune inherited by the duke’s newborn (and, thanks to the wedding, legitimate) child.
The duke sends Lagardère off with the baby, thinking that he and his new wife are done for. Lagardère meets up with a traveling theatrical troupe and raises Nevers’s daughter, Aurore, as his own. Over time, she grows into a beautiful young woman, played by Marie Gillain, to whom Lagardère feels simultaneously protective and romantically attracted (this is basically a fairy tale, sure, but viewed in the post-Woody-and-Soon-Yi/post-Donald-and-Ivanka era, I have only one comment: Yikes!). Lagardère learns that Aurore still has living family, and that she is still rightfully a duchess, but Gonzague has seized all of the family’s power. Primed for revenge, Lagardère concocts an elaborate ruse in which he pretends to be a hunchback (see, I told you we would get back to that title) so that he can get close to Gonzague and bring him down, while restoring Aurore to her family and her title.
On Guard is a stirring combination of sharp material, confident direction, and a well-suited cast. Auteuil is a natural good guy, with charm and wit to spare. Perez manages to make the Duke de Nevers an amusingly snobby aristocrat while still making him essentially a warm and likable friend to the down-and-out Lagardère. Gillain is able to be a spunky tomboy and a enchanting romantic lead, often at the same time. Luchini’s evil count might as well be a latter-day Bond villain, because it is an utter pleasure to watch him enact his dastardly schemes. World cinema veteran Philippe Noiret (Cinema Paradiso) also has a memorable small role as an elder aristocrat.
The second film in the set, Five Day Lover, is an amusing soufflé but not nearly as satisfying as On Guard. de Broca’s direction is energetic and stylish, complimented by some jaw-droppingly luminous black-and-white cinematography by Jean Penzer. The cast is effervescent, as is the musical score by the legendary Georges Delerue. But somehow the script by de Broca and frequent collaborator Daniel Boulanger is frequently — why mince words? — boring. Large chunks of the dialogue are so elaborately tedious that one often wishes the characters would just shut up so you can savor all the pretty pictures.
Jean Seberg, the American actress best remembered for her performance (and pixie haircut) in the French New Wave classic Breathless, appears here as Claire, a mildly bored housewife and mother who starts having an affair on weekday afternoons with playboy Antoine (Jean-Pierre Cassel), while leaving evenings and weekends for her bookish husband Georges (François Périer). Both Claire and Antoine pretend to be more well-to-do than they actually are, with Antoine’s cash coming directly from a sugar mama fashion designer, Madeleine (Micheline Presle). Claire is good friends with Madeleine, although she tries to keep this fact a secret from both of them. Eventually, the cat gets out of the bag, and Madeleine decides to hold a party where she invites Claire, Georges, AND Antoine, so that she can watch the two illicit lovers squirm in the face of the cuckolded husband.
Admittedly, the film picks up quite a bit in its second half, as Claire and Antoine tempt fate by spending a whole night together, going out for a lavish night on the town, full of gambling, boozing, singing, and dancing. It’s the one moment where the film verges on turning into a classic Hollywood musical, and it’s intoxicating. The near-farcical sequence at Madeleine’s party where all four main characters are forced into the same relatively small space is similarly a gem of a setpiece, full of clever moments and snappy pacing. An typical resolution for the characters’ dilemmas makes the low-key ending unexpectedly satisfying, as long as you aren’t looking for much more than a pleasantly diverting romantic dramedy.
Cohen Film Collection’s presentation is great. It’s disappointing that the audio only comes in a compressed lossy option, but the video quality is pretty much flawless. On Guard is accompanied by nearly an hour of bonus footage, including vintage interviews and a large selection of on-set B-roll, while Five Day Lover is supplemented only with a new re-release trailer.
Ratings: On Guard: 8/10; Five Day Lover: 6/10; Blu-ray presentation: 8/10.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.