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‘The Three Musketeers – Part I: D’Artagnan’ Review: First Half of Epic French Classic Introduces a Wicked-Good Eva Green

All for one and … two for all?

In a bold move, French film studio Pathé (together with partners in Germany, Spain and Belgium) bet nearly $80 million on an all-star, double-barreled adaptation of “The Three Musketeers,” gambling that interest would be high enough that director Martin Bourboulon could split Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling epic over two films, spaced half a year apart, and audiences would show up for both halves. The gamble paid off (in Gaul, at least), as the first part — “The Three Musketeers – Part One: D’Artagnan,” released last April — was a huge hit, and appetites remain strong for the sequel, which opens in France on Dec. 13.

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In the States, however, where “Kill Bill,” “The Avengers” and “Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning” have paved the way for two-part blockbusters, that strategy seems less certain. A series of disappointing screen versions (from Disney’s 1993 “The Three Musketeers” to a schlocky, more recent stab featuring flying airships and a gravity-defying Milla Jovovich as Milady) has tarnished the legend. It would be easy to eventize a double bill, marketed to fanboys and action-movie enthusiasts, in which all four hours are screened together on Imax — but that’s not how U.S. distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films plans to do it.

And so “D’Artagnan” must fend for itself in a tiny specialty release, playing in art-house theaters to foreign-film aficionados starting Dec. 8, rather than on all the same screens that Ridley Scott’s no-less-bombastic “Napoleon” is now hogging. In theory, the movie shouldn’t make a dime less than Vincent Cassel-starrer “Brotherhood of the Wolf” did back in 2001, but without an American studio behind it, or a smart marketing campaign to convey what a big deal it has been in France, “The Three Musketeers” might not even break even.

Without overselling the movie — which certainly has its flaws — that would be a shame, as Bourboulon (whose 2021 “Eiffel” biopic proved he could operate on a large scale) has delivered the rare European co-production grand and exciting enough to rival the Hollywood franchise movies competing for local coin. Just check out that cast. Amusingly bored-looking, Louis Garrel prisses it up as King Louis XIII, while Vicky Krieps elegantly embodies his unfaithful wife Anne of Austria, whose indiscretions with the Duke of Buckingham (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) drive one of this movie’s biggest missions.

As the titular trio — Athos, Porthos and Aramis, the top soldiers in a royal corps armed with guns but acclaimed for their swordsmanship — the film taps three thesps with no fewer than 18 César nominations among them: Cassel, Pio Marmaï and Romain Duris. François Civil, who plays ambitious young D’Artagnan, may be less familiar to foreign audiences, but he’s an obvious star — so much so that the film embraces the handsome actor’s scruffy goatee and wild, windblown hair, styling the character around Civil’s off-screen persona. He’s spontaneous, unpredictable and full of energy, and director Bourboulon adopts a complementary shooting style: The widescreen camera nimbly observes, adapting to and dancing along with the action. If only everything weren’t so brown.

That’s the strange takeaway from “D’Artagnan”: Apparently, everything was dirty in France circa 1627, even the light, to the extent it looks as if Bourboulon instructed DP Nicolas Bolduc to study Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” while ordering the crew to spackle all the costumes and actors with a thin coat of grime. The mud-covered opening action sequence takes place in the pouring rain — a virtuosic one-shot number where the choreography of the swordfighting and gun blasts is still only half as impressive as what the cameraman had to do to capture it all (even passing under a carriage at one point as D’Artagnan crawls through the muck). The scene ends with the reveal of the movie’s real dream-casting coup: Eva Green as the cunning Milady de Winter, who leaves D’Artagnan for dead.

One of the many strengths of Dumas’ source material is its delicious female antagonist (while the first part is dubbed after D’Artagnan, the second installment takes its name from Milady). There’s no actor alive better suited to the seductive, sinister role than Green, who brings the dark spirit of “Penny Dreadful” and her recent Tim Burton collaborations to the part. Milady may not be the story’s principal villain — that would be the duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu (Éric Ruf), who schemes to unseat the king but lurks largely in the shadows — but she’s by far the most compelling, and Green knows how to walk the razor-fine line between malice and camp.

On more than one occasion, the plot of the novel (which runs nearly 800 pages in many editions) has proven dauntingly complex to reduce to feature length, which is one reason recent screen versions tend to feel inadequate. With four hours to work with, screenwriters Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière have more space in which to explore its many twists and intrigues. That gives this latest adaptation the heft and what-happens-next fascination of shows like “The Tudors” and “Versailles.” Indeed, it might have made a better miniseries.

Having clawed his way out of a shallow grave, D’Artagnan arrives in Paris, where he manages to offend Athos (Cassel), Porthos (Marmaï) and Aramis (Duris), booking back-to-back duels with all three of them. Spectacular as the ensuing swordplay may be, Bourboulon’s penchant for framing everything from a certain distance in long, acrobatic takes starts to wear, feeling a little too indebted to the visionaries who introduced that aesthetic earlier this century (“JCVD” director Mabrouk El Mechri in France, and “The Revenant” DP Emmanuel Lubezki abroad), right down to the filthy dun-colored filters. To reiterate: If only everything weren’t so brown.

Not so Garrel and Krieps, as the royal couple are practically the only ones here with access to soap and clean water. The king is such a twit, however, you can hardly understand the musketeers’ loyalty — though it does make Anne’s infidelity a lot easier to support. In any case, that’s what makes them such admirable heroes: They put loyalty to the crown above even their own lives, bending only when a woman’s honor is at stake. In that sense, D’Artagnan seems more than deserving to join their ranks, and the first movie includes the satisfaction of him being promoted to musketeer, while Milady remains at large.

We’ll see how her personality informs the sequel soon enough, though this film takes its cues from D’Artagnan. Eager and always up for a challenge, he comes across as a charming multitasker — which is reflected in all those continuous, action-filled takes — whether fencing several adversaries at once or juggling his missions with the instant crush he feels for Constance Bonacieux (Lyna Khoudri). Simplified from the novel, their romance hasn’t yet gotten enough space to develop, though Bourboulon sees that as the cliffhanger on which to end Part I.

Will audiences follow along? Dumas was a master of the serial form, and this version of “The Three Musketeers” manages to preserve that thrill-to-thrill sensation. The experience leaves you wanting more, though it’s probably better suited to binge-watching in its entirety.

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