Wednesday 17 May 2023

Swords of a thousand men: "The Three Musketeers Part I: D'Artagnan"

I'm slightly amazed to realise that, thus far in my lifetime, I've witnessed two teeny-bop takes on The Three Musketeers (the Disney x residual Brat Pack collab of 1993, and the Paul W.S. Anderson farrago of 2011), and even a Spanish-Japanese kids' animation with a fabulous theme tune and a talking dog D'Artagnan, but nothing comparable out of France. (One could say the same about The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo, both apparently deemed untouchable by French producers but fair game everywhere else.) Well, here comes the corrective. The Three Musketeers Part I: D'Artagnan forms the first half of a planned diptych, fulsomely backed by Pathé, and featuring a veritable qui's-qui of French acting talent. This is very much Dumas trad: scant CG swashbuckling, no end-credits duet by the Gallic equivalents of Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart and Sting, and - if it doesn't quite go the full Germinal on us - some measure of mud and grit with which to offset the abundant, pricey handsomeness of it all. If there's any concession to recent trends, it lies in a slight HBO-isation of the source material - a hint of fully dressed Game of Thrones or period Succession 
in its fleshing and thrashing out of the courtly intrigue surrounding weakling king Louis XIII (Louis Garrel) and his faithless queen Anne (Vicky Krieps). We need the upwardly thrusting mobility of the movie's restless D'Artagnan (François Civil, who has the bright eyes and shaggy look of the young Ethan Hawke) - charging out of the provinces to make a name for himself in the city and beyond, surviving live burial in the prologue only to be knocked out cold in a coda - to re-energise a film that threatens, at least in its early stages, to get bogged down in its own plotting.

The main achievement of Martin Bourboulon's film is to reconnect us with the pleasures of a good story, well told. Dumas gave screenwriters Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière the gift of a great opening: D'Artagnan pissing off all three Musketeers on his way into Paris and having to schedule successive duels with each. (It's the kind of meet-cute for which romcom writers would put an épée through someone.) Care, too, has been taken to differentiate between its swordsmen. Vincent Cassel plays Athos as a tortured old soak, stuck behind bars for much of Part 1, having been framed for murder; Romain Duris, typically vulpine, is a womanising dandy Aramis; and Pio Marmaï an openly bisexual, broadly companionable Porthos who insists "a thigh is a thigh". Running rings around them all in this first instalment: Eva Green, apparently channelling Musidora as Milady, forever shifting shape and burying items in her voluminous cleavage. There's an argument that earlier adaptations did rather better at parsing and streamlining the roster of supporting players, and there really are only so many ways a director can shoot a swordfight. (The action peaks early with a handheld approximation of a one-shot, doubtless requiring some digital trickery, which bears the influence of the Bourne movies and Roger Deakins' work on 1917.) What you're mostly watching here is the construction of a well-timbered machine that rolls along at moderate-to-fast pace, dispensing narrative with a modicum of style and unquestionable assurance. It's got Bank Holiday - or l'équivalent français - written all over it, but for the time being, you feel the text has been set down in honourable hands. Part 2: Milady opens in France later this year.

The Three Musketeers Part 1: D'Artagnan is now playing in selected cinemas.

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