D’Artagnan’s Daughter (French: La Fille de D’Artagnan), 1994.
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier.
Starring Sophie Marceau, Philippe Noire, Sami Frey, Jean-Luc Bideau, Raoul Billerey and Claude Rich.
For sheltering a runaway slave in her convent, Eloïse D’Artagnan’s guardian is murdered – Eloïse vows revenge and sets off to find her famous father to ask for his help.
Perhaps you went to the cinema recently. Perhaps you too were inflicted with a headache’s worth of 3D trailer worryingly titled The Three Musketeers, featuring the kind of buff, swaggering nonces we’re used to seeing in Pirates of the Caribbean series. It seems determined to be epic, or somesuch other flash word. With lines like “Only we can prevent the coming apocalypse”, the plot seems destined to go the way of Pirates; straight up its own arse.
Whatever happened to all the fun in the world? Didn’t we already have a rubbish Musketeers remake back in the ‘90s? Why does D’Artagnan always look like a girl in these films? These questions and more can be answered with eerie precision and excellent humour by D’Artagnan’s Daughter.
Chances are this one passed you by; short of the odd Amelie, French cinema doesn’t get much of a look-in at UK cinemas. A pre-Braveheart-fame Sophie Marceau leads the cast with gusto as Eloïse D’Artagnan, a hot-headed tomboy with a taste for adventure and a talent for swordplay kept under wraps in a remote convent. French acting legend Philippe Noiret plays D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer himself, grown old and fat, aching in places he never dreamed existed. A murdered Mother Superior and a mysterious laundry list prompt Eloïse to seek out her father and implore him to investigate.
The plot from here on is farcical and thrilling by degrees, with all the passion and patois of Alexandre Dumas’ original stories. Tavernier gets straight to the heart of these blithe, wry characters in a way no director has come close to since Richard Lester’s acclaimed pair of Musketeers films in the ‘70s. Here, spectacle goes hand in hand with comedy gold. Deadly swordplay quickly develops into spirited horseplay; daring rescues get rudely interrupted by desperate escapes. Film-makers adapting a Dumas story forget his wicked sense of humour at their peril.
In this respect, special credit must go to Claude Rich’s Duc de Crassac. His is a character both monstrously ambitious and delightfully daft. He proposes to Sophie Marceau’s chest. He schemes mid-coitus. Whenever you fear this film might take itself too seriously, you spot Crassac unashamedly leering at a nun whilst he’s having his dastardly plans explained to him by a subordinate. And he’s not even the best part about D’Artagnan’s Daughter.
What is, then? It could be the swordplay, fast and flamboyant, brimming with surprise and suspense. Scenes showcasing Marceau’s skills in particular are riotous and tense by degrees, as her mad-flailing-novice style terrifies and perplexes her opponents. Or it could be the musketeers themselves, rheumatic oddballs and hard cases to a man. It might be the mad mix of supporting characters, confusing and bamboozling each other with sex and politics and eyepatches. Ultimately, all these separate elements might sum up to a good film, but it’s the direction that makes D’Artagnan’s Daughter greater than the sum of its parts.
Tavernier doesn’t treat a comic scene like comedy. There’s no jokey musical cues to instruct us that this scene or that line is supposed to be funny. His actors play it deadpan all the way. There’s a scene where the Duc de Crassac poisons his chief poisoner. The look on the poisoner’s face is more perplexed than anguished. Crassac says, with a little shrug, “You knew too much.” Not a hint of malice, not a cackle to be seen. As if this is a perfectly normal thing to do. Rich doesn’t play a villain, he plays a callous, ambitious idiot, genuinely convinced he’s justified in committing murder.
D’Artagnan’s Daughter is precisely the kind of fun and feisty swashbuckler French cinema excels at. Tavernier throws conspiracy, duels to the death and father/daughter tensions into an adventure film and still keeps the tone indomitably light-hearted. This is quintessential Saturday night entertainment; it just happens to be in French. So man up. You’ll stop noticing the subtitles after the first tavern brawl anyway.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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