With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo, or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles — with you, we dream.– French President, Jacques Chirac
In 2002, on the bicentenary of French writer Alexandre Dumas’ birth, his ashes were re-interred at the mausoleum of the Panthéon, Paris. Then President Jacques Chirac played tribute to this giant of French literature, whose prolific oeuvre includes, The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires, 1844), Twenty Years After (Vingt ans après, 1845), The Man in the Iron Mask (L’Homme au Masque de Fer), and The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, 1844-1846). Without Dumas’ swashbuckling adventures, literature would miss some of its masterpieces. His prose paints images of honourable and heroic deeds, political intrigue, conspiracies, and assumed identities.
More than 200 years after his death, Dumas’ legacy endures. His stories have bestowed upon him immortality, evidenced by the first of a new two-part film adaptation, The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan (Les trois mousquetaires: D’Artagnan), directed by Martin Bourboulon, written by Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière.
Peace in 1627 France is threatened by religious tensions between the ruling catholics and the protestant separatists of LaRochelle, who are supported by France’s sworn enemy, England. The story opens with D’Artagnan (François Civil) travelling from Gascony to Paris, where he intends to give Capitaine de Tréville (Marc Barbé), commander of the Musketeer King’s Guard, his letter of introduction.
Carelessly offending three Musketeers, Athos (Vincent Cassel), Porthos (Pio Marmaï), and Aramis (Romain Duris), he’s engaged to fight three duels on his first day in Paris. The timely intervention of the Cardinal’s Guards,sees D’Artagnan align with the three Musketeers to protect King Louis XIII (Louis Garrel) from Cardinal de Richelieu’s (Eric Ruf) schemes to make war with protestant England.
Bourboulon, Delaporte, and Patellière’s lack of reverence for the source material will likely irritate some audiences with affection for the novel. Any changes, however, are in keeping with the spirit of Dumas’ original intention, which was inspired by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras’, Mémoires de Monsieur d’Artagnan (from 1700), but is predominantly fictional.
The many adaptations of Dumas’ novel and his own creative licence positions The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan as a Chinese whisper, where each iteration differs. Admittedly, it has been over ten years since I read the novel, and it occurs to me that any filmed adaptation will be a lesser relation because of certain restrictions. At around 700 pages, Dumas had the freedom to expand the story – cinema demands brevity from filmmakers. The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan lacks the poetics and grace of Dumas’ sprawling story, but this latest retelling is well plotted, and Bourboulon and his writers know how to condense the story to honour the novel’s spirit.
It’s difficult to offer any authoritative critical appraisal of part one until The Three Musketeers: Milady (Les trois mousquetaires: Milady) releases later this year – the fate of the two films are inextricably connected. Under Bourboulon’s direction, Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography in the opening action set-piece effectively imitates the swooshing swords penetrated by the bluntness of gunfire. Instead of relying on the edit, the camera pans with the action and the choreography’s signature.
The balletic-like violence is chaotic instead of romanticised. The anger and savagery of the clashing swords duelling before cutting through flesh can almost be felt. The camera becomes like a disorientated wandering eye amidst the chaos. There’s time to layer in a romantic point-of-view, but from D’Artagnan’s first encounter with Richelieu’s agent, Milady (Eva Green), his adventure is perilous. Oddly distracting, however, is the music of the action set-pieces. They are haunted by occasional beats that sound eerily similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Legend Trilogy.
Throughout, viewers can almost feel the texture of the space, from the pristine palace to the dirty, cramped streets of Paris. Unlike other adaptations, the Musketeers’ attire looks tired and worn, conveying authenticity. What’s striking is that none of this feels performed. The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan creates a living and breathing world.
Besides Richelieu and Milady, fate also serves as an antagonist. D’Artagnan and his friends are thrust into a growing web of intrigue, where lives are forfeit for political and personal agendas. When we consider fate, we understand that there are two simple love stories beneath all of the intrigue and Machiavellian scheming. The first is between D’Artagnan and his landlady, Constance Bonacieux (Lyna Khoudri), confidant to Queen Anne (Vicky Krieps), and the second between Anne and France’s sworn enemy, The Duke of Buckingham (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). Unlike in the novel, D’Artagnan and Constance’s impending love is not adulterous. For the Queen and her lover, however, fate cruelly places them in an unreconcilable position, unable to consummate their love.
There’s also the inherent friction between the genders that is present in the source material, be it D’Artagnan and Milady or Athos’ shared history with the femme-fatale. In Dumas’ novel, Richelieu is even happy to be rid of his spy and assassin, who is a liability as much as she’s an asset.
Green was born to play Milady. She infuses the character with a quietly seductive and menacing presence. Green, who has become one of contemporary cinema’s most captivating actresses, builds her performances around the dance between confidence and vulnerability. Which of the two is taking the lead can change throughout a single performance, but audiences are aware of the other, even if it’s not the dominant presence. Green effectively utilises her undeniable presence here.
Other notable mentions go to Duris, who captivates as Aramis. The strength of his performance is in the non-verbal delivery of his character, while expectations of Cassel jumping off the screen, with his habitual larger-than-life presence is thwarted. Instead, the actor shows his nuanced skill by losing himself in the sombre, hurt, and angry Athos.
The intrigue of The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan, is the sympathetic reimagining of one of literature’s great villains. The audience is guided to root for D’Artagnan and his friends against Richelieu, but the filmmakers muddy this adversarial simplicity.
Dumas’ intention was that Milady be morally ambivalent, a character void of sympathy. Here, she’s a victim of Athos, once her husband. Choosing to protect his title and standing when he discovered her true identity, he lacked the compassion to acknowledge her unfortunate situation and condemned her to be hung. Rescued by Richelieu for his own nefarious devices, she’s further victimised.
The shift in the context of her original crime seeks to manipulate the moral clarity of the story. Is Milady an incarnation of the cliché: we create our own monsters? By complicating one of their central antagonists, Bourboulon, Delaporte, and Patellière have engaged in themes of gender politics and patriarchal abuse of power, pulling The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan into the 21st Century.
Bourboulon, Delaporte, and Patellière’s adaptation of Dumas’ novel is a work in progress, but the treatment of Milady raises expectations for a shift in how this classic story might resonate when part two is released. We are looking forward to it.
The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan is released exclusively in UK and Eire cinemas from 21 April 2023 by Pathé and Entertainment Film Distributors.