While Hollywood filmmakers mess up the likes of The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte Cristo, veteran French director Philippe de Broca (remember King of Hearts?) shows how a swashbuckler should be done with this 1997 adaptation of Le bossu, the novel by Dumasís lesser-known contemporary Paul Féval. Perhaps drawing on the virtues and mistakes of the four other French versions of the book that have been made since 1924, de Broca unfolds the improbable adventures of Lagardère (Daniel Auteuil, acting with the elfin brashness and frantic grace of Jackie Chan, especially in the fight scenes), a swordsman for hire in the latter days of Louis XIV. Contracted to kill the foppish Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez) by the latterís toad-like cousin Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini), Lagardère instead helps Nevers escape, and the two bond with a warmth and conviction that no American buddy movie could touch. ("Do you dabble in sodomy?" asks Nevers. Lagardére answers in the negative, and they move on.)
Brutal events force Lagardère to flee with Neversís infant daughter to the safety of a traveling theater troupe, and 16 years pass and youíre still game to see how the outrageously improbable narrative strands will wrap up. Thatís due in part to the spunk of Auteuil, who suspends disbelief even as he assumes the guise of a hunchback (the bossu of the title) who moves like Topo Gigio and has the financial instincts of Ken Lay. Then thereís Jean-François Robinís cinematography, which evoke the landscapes of Lorain and the interiors of Vermeer without intruding on the taleís tone of light farce and even lighter tragedy. A splendid treat, as invigorating, stylish, and inconsequential as the art of fencing itself.