On Guard (original title: Le Bossu) tells a swashbuckling tale of a swordsman (Daniel Auteil) who ends up entangled in the life of a duke and his scheming cousin in 18th-century France. It's a lavish-looking film, with plenty of lovely location settings, elegant costumes, and beautifully-choreographed fencing sequences. Yet somehow On Guard feels distant, like a set of elegant engravings that you can flip through and admire bits of, without taking a particular interest in the whole experience.
One problem here may be that On Guard barely has time to arrange its pieces on the board before the plot starts moving them around. It's not made particularly clear who Lagardiere is – at first he seems just like a random fellow who challenges the Duke of Nevers at a fencing salle – and there's certainly no background built up to show that he's the outstanding swordsman that he's supposed to be. Similarly, the Duke of Nevers is hurried on stage and involved in intrigue before we really know who he is, and his relationship with Lagardiere is likewise rushed through. Given what we're shown, it's not really credible that Lagardiere would devote himself to the Duke's orphaned daughter the way he does; there's just not enough evidence of a lasting bond to make this believable.
The rest of the film is reasonably well done, as we see Lagardiere raising the Duke's daughter and eventually trying to set things right and avenge the Duke, but the fact that the film never really sets its hook in the viewer at the beginning certainly takes its toll, as it's hard to be engaged in the characters' adventures. It doesn't help matters any that On Guard seems determined to inject a certain amount of humor into the story; Lagardiere is depicted as almost a buffoon at first, and Gonzague is played slightly over-the-top, giving the film an odd tone that really doesn't fit with the "swashbuckling adventure" story as a whole.
Speaking of peculiar aspects of the movie, for some reason the filmmakers decided that the story wouldn't be complete without a love interest for Lagardiere... in the form of the girl he's raised as a daughter. OK, she's not his biological daughter, but my reaction can still be summed up in one word: ick.
One thing that On Guard does handle very well is its fight scenes, which feature some very nice, very realistic fencing. (I'm a competitive fencer myself, so I watch for these things).
On Guard is presented in anamorphic widescreen at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and looks quite good. Colors are bright and natural-looking, and the print as a whole is clean, though a few flaws and some edge enhancement do creep in. What's holding it back from a better score is the fact that the contrast in the dark scenes is a bit too heavy.
The English subtitles are optional.
The French soundtrack offers an excellent listening experience. It's described as Dolby 2/2 surround sound, which is a bit odd, but what that actually seems to mean is that the soundtrack uses two front channels and two back channels. In any case, it provides a nicely immersive track that sounds like a good 5.1 track. The sound is crisp and clean, from dialogue to the clicks and clacks of swords. The musical part of the soundtrack is balanced well with the rest of the track, although the fact that the musical style doesn't match the film's period setting is a bit jarring. The surround channels are put to good use in a number of scenes, creating a nicely immersive experience. Optional English subtitles are included.
The main special feature is a set of interview clips from director Philippe de Broca and actors Daniel Auteil, Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Perez, and Marie Gillain, totaling about 25 minutes. These are in French with English subtitles. The participants discuss a variety of topics related to the film, and while they're not the most gripping interviews I've ever seen, fans of the film will likely find them worth viewing.
The other main special feature is a set of six "behind the scenes" segments, totaling about nine minutes. These aren't really that interesting, as they're literally just a glimpse behind the scenes, with no narration or information about what's going on. Lastly, the DVD includes the French and international versions of the theatrical trailer.
On Guard didn't really connect with me, but it does have its merits as a swashbuckling period adventure with solid production values. If the story sounds interesting, it's probably worth checking out as a rental.