THE THREE MUSKETEERS: PART I – D’ARTAGNAN (Les trois mousquetaires: D’Artagnan)

Producer: Dimitri Rassam   Director: Martin Bourboulon   Screenplay: Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière   Cast: François Civil, Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, Pio Marmaï, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Vicky Krieps, Lyna Khoudri, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Éric Ruf, Marc Barbé, Patrick Mille, Julien Frison, Dominique Valadié, Thibault Vinçon, Alexis Michalik, Ivan Franek, Nicolas Vaude, Charlotte Ranson, Raynaldo Houy Delattre, Gabriel Almaer and Alain Grellier     Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: B

It’s doubtful that we really need yet another movie of Alexander Dumas’ 1844 adventure novel, which has been adapted for screens big and small innumerable times, but if we must have one, you could do a lot worse than this effort from Martin Bourboulon (“Eiffel”), the first half of a duology.  For one thing, it doesn’t camp things up overmuch, as so many of its predecessors have done, or try to turn it into something like a modern superhero flick the way Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2011 atrocity did.

For another, it takes the original seriously.  That doesn’t mean that “D’Artagnan” is humorless, or that it doesn’t tweak the narrative in various ways, simplifying some plot elements and adding others, some quite substantial, while jettisoning a number of important characters while relegating others to mere walk-ons; and, of course, it takes advantage of modern cinematic techniques, especially in the swordfight scenes, where Bourboulon, cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, editor Célia Lafitedupont, the cast and their stunt doubles use every possible trick to make the action swift and breathless.        

But the new “Musketeers” does treat Dumas’ book with respect and attempts to be true to its spirit, even as it tinkers quite liberally with the narrative—and with the milieu: though it was shot at some noteworthy locations and features an impressive production design (Stéphane Taillasson), with costumes (Thierry Delettre) and sets (Philippe Cord’homme) decorated by Emmanuel Delis and Jessy Kupperman that revel in an abundance of detail, it emphasizes the dankness of the era.  People seem to be smeared with dirt, and the darkness of Bolduc’s widescreen lensing accentuates the visual gloom, especially since much of the action occurs in drenching rain and sodden mud.

The film also focuses, to an exceptional degree, on the religious conflict between Catholics and Huguenots roiling the country in the 1620s, especially at La Rochelle, the siege of which Dumas famously fictionalized.  Providing such extensive context to the eventual decision by King Louis XIII (Louis Garrel) to attack the city sometimes threatens to weigh down the narrative.     

And yet the energy and adventure of Dumas’ perennial comes through.  Young would-be royal musketeer D’Artagnan, played by François Civil, is introduced in 1627 being waylaid on his way from Gascony to Paris while heroically trying to save a mysterious young woman from apparently being kidnapped, only to be shot by her and having to extricate himself from a premature burial.  Proceeding to the capital, he approaches Captain de Tréville (Marc Barbé) for admission to the musketeers, but only receives a recommendation for a lesser post.  He then makes the mistake of jostling three men, all of whom demand satisfaction.  D’Artagnan thus finds himself committed to a series of duels with none other than Athos (Vincent Cassel), Aramis (Romain Duris) and Porthos (Pio Marmaï).

As he prepares for the sequential duels, the group of four is accosted by swordsmen of Cardinal Richelieu (Éric Ruf), who charge them with disturbing the peace.  A fight ensues, with the outcome a predictable one; but the victors are reprimanded by the king, who’s being pressed by Richelieu and his partisans to take strong action against the Protestants.

At this point the screenplay takes a twist into the judicial arena when Athos is arrested for murder when he’s found drunk in bed with the body of a woman—and under questioning also admits to being a Protestant.  He’s sentenced to death, and his compatriots work to prove his innocence.  Among their first acts is to identify the victim, whom D’Artagnan recognizes as the woman who shot him.  That takes him to a noble estate where he’s attacked by the villainess Milady de Winter (Eva Green), who’s in league with the cardinal to undermine the king.  But D’Artagnan escapes and returns to Paris.

Athos is ultimately saved from execution by his brother Benjamin (Gabriel Almaer), a Protestant partisan, but meanwhile D’Artagnan is drawn into further service to the crown by a plea from his landlady Constance Bonacieux (Lyna Khoudri), a servant and confidante of King Louis’ wife Anne (Vicky Krieps).  Anne is having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who has been aiding the Huguenots for England, and has entrusted him with a diamond necklace given her by her husband.  Now, at Richelieu’s urging, Louis demands that she wear the necklace at the upcoming wedding of his brother Gaston of Orléans (Julien Frison).  At Anne’s plea Constance enlists D’Artagnan to go to England and retrieve it; but Milady de Winter is there to purloin it as well, and they struggle over it during a madcap chase on horseback.  Eventually, however, D’Artagnan is successful and saves the day.

Still, all is not well.  At Gaston’s wedding ceremony an assassination attempt by Huguenot leaders is mounted against Louis.  Only a last-minute intervention by Athos saves him—a scene that, quite frankly, comes across as a seventeenth-century version of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  Although the day is saved again and Athos pardoned, the film ends with an assault on Constance, who by now is D’Artagnan’s beloved, and an imminent attack on La Rochelle.  Presumably that will be covered in Part II of the adaptation, subtitled “Milady.”

As this précis indicates, this is a very busy two hours, with some of the episodes drawn from Dumas and others pretty much invented by screenwriters Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière.  Though attempts are made to explain the historical context—particularly the religious civil war—for viewers, some knowledge of what’s happening in France in the late 1620s would not be amiss to fully appreciate the plot contortions.  And one must simply set aside logic while it comes to a few matters—how, for example, does D’Artagnan survive being shot at close range, and what exactly happens with Milady at the culmination of his mission to England?  Perhaps at least the second will be explained in the next installment.

Still, though one can question some of the filmmakers’ decisions, generally they pull off the attempt to revivify Dumas’ flavorful swashbuckler for modern audiences.  Some will question the casting of Civil, Cassel, Duris and Marmaï, all—particularly Cassel—rather older for their parts than might be ideal (and inserting a conversation revealing that Porthos is either gay or bisexual seems an arbitrary nod to contemporary concerns).  But they’re excellent actors, and bring color to their roles.  There should be less controversy about Green and Khoudri, whose rightness for their characters in unassailable.  Garrel and Krieps make a perfect royal couple, with the former’s indecisiveness balanced by some wit in his dialogue, and though Ruf is hardly the most imposing Richelieu ever to grace the screen, he wears his red robe imposingly.  The rest of the cast is fine, though Jacob-Lloyd makes Buckingham a bit dense.  A lushly propulsive score by Guillaume Roussel is a nice topping to the package. 

Dumas’ perennial book has received some painful treatment in past screen adaptations.  This one could be improved upon, but at least it’s not an embarrassment to his name.