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Film / On Guard

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"If you don't come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!"

On Guard (French title Le Bossu, literally The Hunchback) is a 1997 French swashbuckler film. It is an adaptation of Paul Féval's novel Le Bossu, directed by Philippe de Broca.

In France in the year 1700, a skilled and eager swordsman named Lagardère (Daniel Auteuil) challenges Duke Philippe de Nevers (Vincent Perez) to a friendly duel in order to learn his secret lethal trick known as the "Botte de Nevers". Nevers agrees and quickly wins. Nevers then learns that he has a child by Blanche de Caylus, a fact previously concealed by his cousin and would-be heir, the wicked Count of Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini), who's deeply jealous of him and has an unrequited love for Blanche.

That night Nevers escapes an assassination attempt by Gonzague's men, who paid a naive Lagardère to join them. Lagardère refuses to kill Nevers, and the latter spares his life, hiring him as trusted companion on the road to Caylus for his marriage instead, teaching him his lethal trick along the way. Gonzague has all the Caylus wedding's guests slaughtered and stabs Nevers in the back, leaving Nevers' baby girl Aurore orphan and heir to his wealth, and it's up to Lagardère to raise and protect her and avenge Nevers, which takes several years.

Two other notable theatrical film versions of the novel were made, one in 1944 starring Pierre Blanchar and one in 1959, Le Bossu, starring Jean Marais. Television saw a two-part miniseries in 2003, titled Lagardère and starring Bruno Wolkowitch.

On Guard provides examples of:

  • All for Nothing: Gonzague wants Nevers' wife, has him killed, and becomes her guardian, only to find that she has no interest in him or anyone but her dead husband, even after sixteen years. He wants Nevers' fortune, and inherits it after his murder, but ends up mismanaging it through corruption to the point that he's nearly broke (and, once Lagardère gives him a little push, completely broke). He wants Nevers' status and respect at the Court of France, but when it's discovered that he gained these through murder and usurpation, the Regent turns against him and effectively signs his death warrant.
  • Analogy Backfire: When all else fails and it looks like the court is about to let Lagardère kill him, Gonzague appeals to his cousin the Regent to save him, invoking their blood ties. The Regent isn't impressed:note 
    Philippe d'Orléans: When I have bad blood, I have it drawn.
  • Badass Boast: As in all of the book's adaptations, Lagardère throws one to Gonzague: "Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!" ("If you don't come to Lagardère, Lagardère will come to you!").
  • Best Served Cold: It takes sixteen years to Lagardère to avenge Nevers, clear his own name and give Nevers' stolen wealth and titles back to Aurore. Granted, much of it is just because he waited till Aurore had significantly grown up.
  • Boomerang Bigot: A minor example. Aurore, now a teenager, seems to be getting close to one of the boys in the group of traveling performers she's grown up with. This troubles Lagardère greatly, who says in no uncertain terms that he doesn't want her marrying "a street performer" - the exact term he'd used earlier to describe himself in his younger years.
  • The Cavalier Years: The film is set at the very beginning of the 18th century, which saw the end of King Louis XIV's reign and Philippe d'Orléans' Regency.
  • Calling Your Attacks: Rare, justified example. Aurore is by no means a trained fencer, so when she's facing Louis-Joseph, she recites from memory every step of the lethal technique she was taught, further adding to the confusion of her opponent.
  • Collector of the Strange:
    • Gonzague is always assisted by a hunchback (working as his head accountant) and his dragon is suffering from unspecified deformity, making him look like a burn victim. This is how eventually Lagardère gets close to him - after the first hunchback gets accidently killed, Gonzague organizes a casting for replacement.
    • Justified by French superstitions in this era. Touching a hunchback's hump was supposed to bring good luck, which is why we see so many contracts being signed on his back.
  • Combat Pragmatist:
    • Aside his iconic, flashy moves, Nevers isn't above fighting dirty or throwing a dagger at a guy he can't reach with his sword.
    • Lagardère doesn't really care about being stylish or honourable - he goes for a kill or quick "win" during training duels. Even if the latter means offending the Duke of Orléans in the process.
    • Louis-Joseph is a big, strong guy. He punches, kicks and throws people around when fighting.
    • Gonzague as well (see Why Don't You Just Shoot Him? below). Probably the best way for him as he has no real fighting experience or ability.
  • Confusion Fu: Aurore fights a little randomly when she's pitted against Gonzague's best swordsman Louis-Joseph. It eventually works in her favor, as she is suddenly in a situation that allows her to perform the lethal trick from her father that Lagardère taught her.
  • The Cynic: Gonzague is oozing with misanthropic remarks about nobility, common people, investors into his company...
  • The Dandy: Nevers chases both fashion trends and ladies.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Lagardère was part of a bunch of hired swords send to assassinate Nevers. Since he's more interested in the duke's fencing technique rather than the payment for the job and Nevers recognises him from earlier once he easily overpowers Lagardère, he offers him a new deal. Rather than trying to kill him, Lagardère will escort him to his wife-to-be and maybe learn something on the way. Not only the men bond quickly over their short stint together, Lagardère shows Undying Loyalty by spending sixteen years on avenging Nevers.
  • Dirty Coward: Gonzague is a Non-Action Big Bad and a such does everything he can to avoid direct confrontation with Lagardère when he is eventually cornered. When faced with no other choice, he takes Aurore as Human Shield with a knife on her throat and fights dirty against Lagardère, not being a fencer.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Besides greed and jealousy, Gonzague's main motivator: he resents his cousins' wealth, power, and status, and sees himself as the Only Sane Man managing their fortune and steering it towards intelligent investments, while they get all the credit, live off his hard work, and waste its profits on frivolities. He's not entirely wrong, either; but he's also a hypocrite who, when he inherits his cousin's fortune, turns out to be just as prone to wasting it by spending lavishly and skimming off the top of his business interests.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Upon being stabbed by his cousin Gonzague, Philippe de Nevers lets a "You!" Exclamation out and calls him a traitor.
  • Faking the Dead: Lagardère fakes his death and that of baby Aurore with the help of an Italian travelling theatre troupe after escaping the massacre at Caylus.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Gonzague envies Nevers his title, his wealth, his looks and the affection of Blanche (along with Blanche herself), never stopping to scheme against his cousin, as he's the direct inheritor of all his possessions unless Aurore is legally made his heir.
  • A Handful for an Eye: Gonzague throws dirt in Lagardère's face to distract him during the final fight. Aurore instead tells him where Gonzague is and eventually uses her own voice as a beacon for Lagardère.
  • Historical Domain Character: The Regent Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, is the only historical character to appear in the film.
  • Idle Rich: Philippe de Nevers is filthy rich, but managing his numerous businesses bores him to death, to the frustration of his business-savvy cousin Gonzague. It pushes the latter even moreso to kill him so he can inherit it all and manage it the way he wants.
  • Knighting: Nevers knights Lagardère shortly before they arrive in Caylus.
  • Master Swordsman: Nevers is one of the best swordsmen in the kingdom when the story starts (hence why his cousin prefers stabbing him In the Back, seeing how useless his mooks are against him), and Lagardère wants to learn from him. Lagardère himself has become this through Cocardasse's teachings, and needs only a few more tricks, the Botte de Nevers especially.
  • Nasty Party: The guests of Nevers' and Blanche's wedding (including Blanche's father) are all killed by Gonzague and his men.
  • Obfuscating Disability: As in all versions, upon returning to Paris with Aurore, Lagardère disguises himself as a hideous hunchback to gain Gonzague's trust and successfully infiltrate his household, hence the title — according to a superstitious belief in France at the time, touching a hunchback's back is supposed to make you lucky. Daniel Auteuil's face makeup was far less complex than that of Jean Marais in the 1959 version, consisting simply in a fake nose and a wig, necessitating much less time to prepare for the filming.
  • Only in It for the Money:
    • What Nevers thinks Gonzague is. It's not entirely true - Gonzague has pettier and arguably more important motivations, like his jealousy towards his cousins - but money's never far from his mind, and it's his main professional activity.
    Lagardère: You pay too much, my lord.
    Gonzague: Too much, yes, it's true. You always pay too much when you pay.
    • Nevers averts this, believing that people of their rank should be men of action and above such crude concerns, and doesn't think much of his cousin for thinking otherwise:
    Nevers: Money. All you think about is money. Are we shopkeepers? Our duty is to fall in the King's service while fighting for his glory.
  • Only One Name: Lagardère is a noble in pretty much all of the other versions of Le Bossu (the minor nobility title of Chevalier, translating as "Knight") and has a full name in them, Henri de Lagardère. Here he is just called "Lagardère", as he is not a noble when the story starts.
  • Papa Wolf: Lagardère grows very protective towards Aurore (his de facto adoptive daughter), as he swore to protect her to her dying father. He also displays shades of Love-Obstructing Parents, as he's against her engagement with just about anyone, and especially a lowly member of the acting troupe they travel with.
  • Planet of Steves: There's not less than three Philippes in the film — the Duke of Nevers, Gonzague and the Regent d'Orléans.
  • Rags to Riches: Rags to titles, which for this time period is possibly even more important. Lagardère is born an orphan, raised as a circus performer, and by the beginning of the movie is known to work as a hired thug and assassin. He then manages to win Nevers' respect and friendship, soon after which Nevers makes him a knight (though thanks to the events of the movie, he still has to live as a fugitive for sixteen years before he can enjoy it).
  • Right Under Their Noses: While organising a manhunt after Lagardère, Gonzague in the same time invites him into his house and makes him his book-keeper, all thanks to a crafty disguise of a hunchback. He's visibly shocked when the charade comes down in the finale.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Duke Philippe d'Orléans, Regent of France. He's established early in the movie as a crusty old fart and a Sore Loser, telling a ridiculous lie in order to save face. He also has genuine affection for his cousin Nevers and later for his widow Blanche; when Lagardère shows up at court to accuse Gonzague, he doesn't have him thrown out, but listens to his accusations and, when they prove convincing, withdraws his protection from Gonzague.
  • Sanity Slippage: Gonzague's Smug Snake facade slowly comes apart over the last third of the movie as the setbacks keep piling up. The last straw comes in front of the royal court, when Lagardère challenges him to a duel and he takes refuge in the laws prohibiting duels, only for the Regent to suspend the law and accept "the judgment of God." Gonzague panics, begs, and finally grabs a hostage, none of which does him any good.
  • Scars are Forever: While Lagardère never saw the face of Nevers' killer, he branded his left hand. Not only Gonzague wears a glove on that hand for the rest of the story to conceal the mark, it is eventually used as a proof he's the killer of Nevers in the end.
  • Servile Snarker: For as long as Nevers is alive, Gonzague never stops to be in the same time always at his service (especially when it comes to the duke's wealth), while constantly being one step away from openly berating him. Nevers is too naive to notice.
  • Signature Move: The Botte de Nevers fencing trick, which results in the enemy being impaled on the forehead between the eyes if well executed. Nevers passes it onto Lagardère, who later teaches it to Aurore.
  • Sore Loser:
    • The Duke of Orléans visits the fencing school of Cocardasse and Passepoil where Lagardère trains at the beginning and gets offered a new sword by Nevers. He insists on duelling someone, and Lagardère volunteers. The Duke is older and Lagardère makes sure not to hurt him, but then he charges foolishly, slips and collapses on the ground, causing some hilarity among the fencing pupils. The Duke gets up and gets annoyed, and insists that he slipped because of a "macaroon".
    • In a less comical vein, Gonzague. The entire plot stems from his anger at Nevers for having been chosen by Blanche over himself. Clearly, murder and usurpation were the sensible response.
  • Street Urchin: This version of Lagardère wasn't noble by birth, he grew up in the streets.
  • Tempting Fate: Nevers lies out in stark terms exactly what Gonzague's motive for murder is early in the movie:
    Nevers: Cousin, you are the sole heir to my fortune, and I deplore it. But be patient. A stray cannonball, a luckless duel, and you'll be rich.
  • Trial by Combat: Duke of Orléans decides to make the duel between Lagardère and Gonzague into one of those. Gonzague is quick to point out that God always seem to stand on the side of the stronger and better swordsman.
  • Visionary Villain: Gonzague sees himself as this: other than Blanche's love, his main obsession throughout the film are the French territories on the Mississippi river, which he constantly needles his cousins Nevers and the Duke of Orléans to develop (through him). Unfortunately, he isn't nearly as good at it as he thinks and constantly skims money off the top to support his lifestyle. This has left him nearly bankrupt, and having to resort to market manipulations to boost his fortune... which allows Lagardère, who by now has infiltrated his inner circle, to reroute all the stocks he's buying to Aurore, leaving him completely bankrupt and her with a fortune.
    • However, Gonzague way of bouncing back from the brink of bankrupcy is - while based on a scam - a solid, well-executed plan. It's just that he's Out-Gambitted by Lagardère. He is, after all, based on John Law of the infamous Mississippi bubble.
  • Villainous Valor: Nevers recognizes and honors it. Lagardère is originally hired to kill him, and when he fails and finds himself facing death, still refuses to betray his employer. The act impresses Nevers enough to forgive him and hire him.
  • Waif-Fu: Subverted. When Aurore faces Louis-Joseph, he constantly takes advantage of being bigger, heavier and stronger than her, quite literally throwing her around and easily keeping her at distance.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?:
    • For all that you can say against Gonzague, he's very good at averting this. The second he has a shot at his cousin, he kills him, even if it means stabbing him In the Back. Later in the movie, when his men have cornered Lagardère, his chief henchman demands permission to duel him to the death himself. Instead, Gonzague simply grabs the henchman's pistol and shoots Lagardère at point blank range. It ultimately doesn't kill him, but not for lack of trying.
    • In a literal sense, the trope is somewhat justified by the time period. In the early eighteenth century, firearms were much less accurate than they would become, and most of them only allowed one shot before you'd have to reload. This helps explain the number of people who carry swords and use them as their primary weapons.
  • Why Won't You Die?: Invoked few times by various characters toward Lagardère, as he always seems to end up dead, only to show up again few days later and wreak even more havoc. Gonzague eventually asks one of his assistant what did he do to Lagardère that he refuses to just die after being apparently drown, stabbed, shot and stabbed again, always coming back.
  • Widowed at the Wedding: Blanche de Caylus, as Philippe de Nevers gets killed the very morning after their wedding.
  • Working-Class Hero:
    • Lagardère, who was orphaned at birth, grew up as a Circus Brat, and when we meet him is working as a sometimes hired thug. This causes some friction in his initial contacts with the nobility: he has no table manners as Nevers understands the term, and can't bring himself to lose a fencing match even when his uncles warn him that it's not his place to beat the Regent of France. He adapts pretty quickly, however, especially once he's responsible for Nevers' orphaned daughter: he makes it his mission in life to restore her to her proper status, tries to raise her as a lady, and doesn't want her marrying a commoner.
    • Once he's been knighted, a third of the way through the movie, he's no longer this trope. However, he's still forced to live as one for sixteen years in order to dodge Gonzague's assassins.
  • "You!" Exclamation: Upon being stabbed to death by his cousin Gonzague, Philippe de Nevers lets one out.