“The Three Musketeers” is to France what Mickey Mouse is to America — a cultural force with a lock on the country’s imagination. The 19th-century cloak-and-dagger tale, written by Alexandre Dumas, has lived countless lives onstage and onscreen, with stars including Charlie Sheen, Charlton Heston, Milla Jovovich and even Barbie resurrecting the classic tale of the Kings guard. It’s as iconically French as the Eiffel Tower, yet, until recently, it had been more than 60 years since the last French movie adaptation.
Enter “The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan” and “Milady,” a gritty two-film franchise by the director Martin Bourboulon that seeks to reclaim this legacy in a major way.
“Milady,” the second installment, was released in European theaters earlier this month; “D’Artagnan” played in Europe last spring and is currently available in the United States on demand.
Boasting a cast of French national treasures (like Louis Garrel and Romain Duris) and stars with global appeal (like Vincent Cassel, Eva Green and Vicky Krieps), these twin French-language productions were conceived as offensives against the tyranny of Hollywood movies that continue to dominate the French box office. At the end of 2022, not a single French-language production made it onto the list of the year’s top 10 highest-grossing films, signaling a crisis for a country whose cinematic heritage is a point of national pride.
“In France, we have the talent, stories, and technicians to make blockbusters that can compete against American offerings,” Bourboulon said. “Big movies shouldn’t be made only by American studios, so we were inspired to take them on.”
Shot back-to-back, the two films were completed on a budget of $78 million, financed by partners in France, Germany, Spain and Belgium. That number might seem low compared to that of this year’s Hollywood heavy-hitters, like “Barbie” ($145 million) or “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” ($250 million). Yet, together, “D’Artagnan” and “Milady” represent one of the most expensive French productions of all time. This big investment is part of a larger program from the French distributor Pathé to support tent-pole filmmaking defined by local character and resources.
In early 2023, the studio released “Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,” a comparably expensive comedy featuring homegrown I.P. and a star-studded cast (including Cassell and Marion Cotillard). That film faltered at the box-office — and fared even worse with French critics. “The Three Musketeers,” however, has managed to draw respectable crowds in France and keep the reviewers sated, in part because it resembles the kind of action-adventure spectacle we don’t get much of nowadays.
Consider the first three “Indiana Jones” movies or “The Mummy,” starring Brendan Fraser. These are old-fashioned extravaganzas, filled with hands-on stunt work and grounded in a real sense of place relative to the artificial CGI backdrops of today’s superhero movies. Intermingling palace intrigue and dry humor with bracing swordplay and horseback races against the clock, “The Three Musketeers” is moodier than these American swashbucklers, but it provides the same kind of guilty pleasure that seems to have been phased out by multiversal travel.
Green, who plays the chameleonic femme fatale Milady, was delighted by the films’ practical effects and on-location shoots. The actress is no stranger to big-budget filmmaking, having starred in English-language blockbusters like “Casino Royale.” “With the green screen, it’s like theater. You have to make it up,” she said in an interview. “Here, there was no green screen. The castles, the Normandy landscapes, the extras — we were all there in the present, living the action from the inside.”
There are no screen-saver visuals in “The Three Musketeers,” but it also stands apart from its counterparts in the United States for its palpable human intrigue and heavy dose of eroticism. Illicit affairs, heated love triangles and murderous tensions between past lovers propel the plot — and one of the three musketeers is casually revealed to be bisexual after a night of drink and debauchery. Heroic values like honor take on a much heavier significance when musketeers are tormented by the demons of genuinely dark histories. The eldest, played by Cassel, is framed by his enemies: After a murdered damsel is found naked in his bed, he tearfully owns up to his past abuses against women in court.
It’s passionate, borderline racy stuff for characters that tend to get the family-friendly treatment — and these movies are better for it. The narratives of both films are roughly structured around d’Artagnan’s musketeer ascendance, the sinister machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, and, in the second film, the mysteries behind Milady’s malice — but they’re also distinguished by a meandering quality that allows the characters to make love, joke around and get drunk. It’s vintage reupholstered with a sexier silhouette.
Some of Pathé’s future tent-pole projects, however, sound more questionable. A lavish rendition of Dumas’s other hit novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” is in the works; as is a two-part biopic about Charles de Gaulle, the French president. Though “The Three Musketeers” was announced as a two-part film, a cliffhanger at the end of “Milady” teases a to-be-continued. Whether or not a third movie is on the table, the series’ characters will live on in two TV spinoffs currently in development: one, centered on Milady; the other, on the first Black musketeer, Hannibal (Ralph Amoussou), who appears briefly in the second film. If these expansions aren’t exactly at a Marvel Cinematic Universe-level of sprawl, the idea of a French Historical Universe provokes an uneasy déjà vu.
As superhero fatigue begins to sink into Hollywood, “The Three Musketeers,” with its immersive settings and combat scenes, and its broad-minded approach to story, reminds us that there’s something to be won by going back to the basics. Personality and (close to) real-world thrills can do a lot of the heavy lifting.