The Three Musketeers: Part I — D’Artagnan, the first of two entries as its title implies, is the French’s first major attempt at the material in over sixty years. With a combined budget of over $78 million and packed with an all-star international cast, D’Artagnan makes its case as the great French myth to rival (or at least outclass) the American blockbuster. The Three Musketeers are as ubiquitous as they are malleable in the popular consciousness — a century of film history has brought us well over 30 adaptations of the Alexander Dumas novel, ranging from the adults-only The Erotic Adventures of the Three Musketeers to crossovers with Mickey Mouse. Time has treated the musketeers kindly, their story evolving to the most recent iteration which even features a bisexual musketeer. Though often limited to threads that are quickly resolved, D’artagnan makes room to chart its own path through the familiarly trodden course run by Dumas’ text and its various retellings.
D’Artagnan follows the titular character (François Civil) on his quest to become a musketeer in service of King Louis XIII (Louis Garrel), joining the ranks of Athos (Vincent Cassel), Porthos (Pio Marmaï), and Aramis (Romain Duris). Treachery from within the palace ensnares the three (eventually, four) in a web of conspiracy after Athos is framed for murder. The musketeers must play both swashbuckler and detective as they uncover a plot led by the Cardinal (Eric Ruf) and Milady (Eva Green) to ruin Queen Anne d’Autriche (Vicky Krieps) and bring the kingdom to war. It’s a story famously ruled by the insecurities of men bound to archaic social codes. As much as a value like “honor” guides the text, so too does sexual insecurity. The narrative famously hinges on King Louis’ confidence that his wife remains faithful, a decision that would lead his country into war bound up with his bedroom affairs. In regards to the general shape of the story, there’s not much new to find in D’Artagnan that hasn’t been detailed in previous versions, save for its new ambitions to modernize the French classic for today’s international audiences attuned to the humdrum affairs of Hollywood blockbusters.
In many regards, the film succeeds in this aim — it carries the same dulled grey palette, anonymous direction, and gritty “hyper-real” texture that has been reverberating around Hollywood. It even features an anticipatory mid-credits sting in the style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Access to historical locations alongside its larger-than-life mythos should make D’Artagnan demand only the largest screen, but director Martin Bourboulon’s world feels more like a faint echo of what has come before rather than a fully realized vision of his own making. This lack of visual identity stands in stark contrast to the last major adaptation of this story, a legitimate auteur’s take on the story in Paul W.S. Anderson’s hyperdigital The Three Musketeers, which told a tale that (literally) leaped off the screen thanks to its 3D. And perhaps in response to the divided reaction to Anderson’s very visible fingerprint, the French elected relative newcomer and definite non-auteurist Bourboulon (Eiffel) to helm D’Artagnan. But for as pedestrian as Bourboulon’s aesthetic prowess is, his ability to excavate genuinely surprising performances from characters we’ve come to know over centuries is at least a welcome treat.
To say that the film presents a politically regressive view of monarchy and masculinity would be an understatement, but the modernization of the text makes more room for Krieps’ Queen Anne, in whom the film finds its unlikely salvation. Krieps has been quietly building a name for herself over the past decade, with her breakthrough in 2017’s Phantom Thread followed by a string of arthouse projects including the captivating, quasi-prophetic work she delivered in Old. Here, Queen Anne is not resigned to the simplicity afforded to her in other filmic adaptations, but instead a deeply held romanticism and determinate resolve colors her an equal to King Louis on every front except the one that matters — his unquestioned divine power to which she must submit in the film’s most dire moments. Garrel, for his part, steals several scenes as the confounding King Louis, who must play at once both the naive aristocrat and the just ruler of such an expansive kingdom. Each of the musketeers’ performers likewise do a fine job in their respective realms, but Cassel as a world-wearied Athos carries a mortal weight rarely afforded to the character in popular interpretations. His sentencing to death and acceptance of his fate provides a dynamic surprise for both the characters and the audience, as all must learn to reconcile with Cassel’s contemplative resolve to his honor even at the cost of his life. Notably absent from much of the film are the antagonistic forces of the Cardinal and Milady, who will presumably have a better show in part two, tellingly titled… Milady.
Part I is nevertheless bursting at the seams with players, but few of them seem to get enough attention to justify the audience’s care. For as many threads and characters as D’Artagnan attempts to juggle, it still feels remarkably bare. In part, this is due to the fact that it Bourboulon seems to feel he must save crucial character development and story for its second part, and this is indicative of the director’s failures of vision. This is also felt in the film’s pacing, which is held along by a number of action scenes, all but one of which are built in such a manner that the outcome is predetermined and feature such absent direction that the fencing and gunfire choreography are rendered flaccid and forgettable.
That’s not to say that the first part of this saga doesn’t often hint at potential, but it’s ultimately too beholden to the promise of more to commit to audience fulfillment here. As is often the problem of movies that owe their existence to a future film, D’Artagnan ends in the middle of the action, with the giant “To be continued” signaling to the audience that any catharsis they found the thread of mere minutes ago will have to be paid for at a later date. If there’s a generous baseline here, it’s because the Dumas’ Three Musketeers is ever-endearing, and so it’s understandable that even a serviceable adaptation would be elevated by what it leans hardest on — its source material. Still, it’s fair to wonder if being so tightly bound to a determined narrative is more of a hindrance than a help when an audience is so familiar with the saga’s inner workings, and the question viewers will have to chew on is how well Bourboulon’s film really works beyond what was written 200 years ago.
DIRECTOR: Martin Bourboulon; CAST: François Civil, Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, Pio Marmaï, Eva Green, Louis Garrel; DISTRIBUTOR: Samuel Goldwyn Films; IN THEATERS/STREAMING: December 8; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 1 min.