Lots of swordplay and scenery. Very little sense.
Scouring the pre-revolutionary streets of France, Dominique and his brother Louison pick pockets and steal available merchandise for criminal gang leader, the very Fagan-ish Malichot. Noticing that his share of the day's theft is growing smaller all the time, Dominique challenges the boss. After a temporary victory, the angry gangster regains control and is determined to teach the ungrateful street thief a lesson. Barely escaping Malichot's men, Dominique enters the army under the name Cartouche and immediately becomes an accidental hero along with friends Gentle and Ogle. After being decorated by the Marshall, they steal his war chest and coach and make off into the night. At a local pub they meet the enticing gypsy girl Venus, who agrees to help Cartouche with his plans for overthrowing Malichot. Upon returning to his home, Cartouche confronts the larcenous leader and replaces him. Cartouche gains the gang's allegiance with promises of fairer treatment and they all start a new "business" of robbing from the rich to divide among themselves and the poor. Soon, Cartouche is the most famous and infamous robber in France. The government wants him caught. The common man adores him. And Venus and he grow closer every day. But Malichot has plans to get revenge, and the Head of the Courts wants this scandal caught at any costs. And Cartouche's newfound fondness for that judicial official's wife just may be the answer to finally stopping this scourge of the streets once and for all.
Based loosely on the real life escapades of Louis-Dominique Bourguignon, who terrorized Regency with his altruistic acts of Robin Hood style wealth distribution, this comic French period piece from the early 1960s represents a missed opportunity to tell an intriguing tale of a noble rogue and the philosophies that brought him untold wealth and eventual remorse. The basic elements are all in place: a dashing leading man (a well cast Jean-Paul Belmondo), a couple of evil villains (the displaced crime boss Malichot and the Head of the Courts), a band of merry men, and a incredibly beautiful and sexy maiden (the incomparable Claudia Cardinale). There are gorgeous scenery locations and magnificent sets and a real sense of opulence to the production, as if no expense was spared. And the basic tale told is filled with backstabbing, double crosses, swashbuckling swordplay, and an air of fun and adventure. So the question becomes, why is Cartouche so lifeless most of the time? Why does a movie that has this much going for it fail to engage or enrapture? Part of the answer comes in the way the movie is put together. This is a broad sweeping canvas of a cinematic palette with attempted epic scope written all over it. And yet the movie is incredibly busy in its beginning. It tosses characters, in-jokes, pratfalls, criminal feuds, and lessons in being a pickpocket at the audience with such rampant abandon you half expect the cast to break into songs from Oliver! It takes a while to understand whom everyone is, where their allegiances lie, and basically what we are supposed to care about. Aside from the poor vs. rich dynamic, there are no other personal paradoxes to really involve us.
Then there is the main plot arch, a pointless endeavor that creates the unlikely love triangle of Cartouche, the vivacious gypsy girl Venus and…the dour, rather unattractive wife of the Head of the Courts. At first, one thinks that the wily bandit is eyeing the political trophy wife as a means of masterminding some fiendish, high-level theft, and indeed, Cartouche does use information garnered from his trysts with the lady to steal a couple of rare diamonds from a visiting dignitary. But then he gives them right back to her. Subsequently you conclude this is some manner of male ego game playing. Perhaps nothing will satisfy Cartouche's lust for life more than being able to bed his legal rival's mate. But even that appears ancillary to the real issues and emotions involved. Eventually we start to conclude that, ever since he saw her at the beginning of the film, Cartouche has been obsessed with the plain, simple noblewoman and is using his newfound power and infamy to win her over. In the end, we learn just how pointless, painful, and useless this all was. Cartouche wants to offer a melodramatic finale in which destiny and desire clash to the detriment of all involved, but when you see what happens, who is adversely affected, and why, you can't help but feel the movie switched gears somewhere at the 90 minute mark and just didn't bother to tell you. The final five minutes are a dreamy downer with oddly beautiful visuals that try and mask last lines of dialogue that sound like bad Zen pontifications, not heroic words of wisdom. Indeed, all the humanity and decency that Cartouche has built up for its cheerful band of charlatans is pretty much pissed away by the misguided romance angle, not to mention the way in which the movie chooses to close it all out.
Still, Cartouche is a gorgeous film to look at, and thanks to this loving DVD presentation by Anchor Bay, the colorful countryside and ornate production design shine magnificently. Aside from a little print flutter along the left side during the opening credit sequence, Cartouche looks brand new and pristine in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. More importantly, director Phillipe De Broca believes in filling the screen with imagery, so anything less than the original theatrical aspect ratio would destroy a great deal of the often too hectic compositions he offers. There are two soundtrack options. As this is a French film, naturally we get the native tongue, along with an English dub. The best bet is the original aural presentation. The English version is way too overbroad, many of the characters coming off like buffoons or cartoons. Unfortunately, there are no extras on this DVD. No trailers or filmographies or even the basic trappings of bonus content. While the extra DVD space really shows in the transfer, a film this obscure would benefit from a little contextual discussion.
As it stands, unless you are a fan of this type of movie, or enjoy the charms of Jean-Paul Belmondo (who is really excellent as Cartouche) or the curves of Claudia Cardinale, Cartouche's soggy saga may be a little too obscure for most novice moviegoers and incredibly disjointed and deceptive for the true film buff. This gallant criminal may have been a man of the people, winning their admiration and devotion with his brash brave attacks against the powers that be. But as a movie, the only thing this rambling rogue succeeds in stealing is the entertainment value from an audience's night at the movies. Cartouche is Car-tepid.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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