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'Les Hussards' is an original comedy whose director Alex Joffé did not choose the easy way out. First of all the source material is a play (P.A. Bréal's 'Les Hussards' first produced in 1953 by the Jacques Fabbri Company) and with a less deft filmmaker at the helm the picture could have been stagy and talky. In the second place, this is a period piece, which, by definition, is harder to make than a movie set in a contemporary environment. Last but not least, the anti militarist tone is far from consensual, unequivocally exposing the absurdities of war in general and army rules in particular. All this did not discourage Alex Joffé from making a film version of the original play and he was right. Indeed he successfully re-creates the period (the story is set in 1796 during Bonaparte's first Italian campaign) and he manages to breathe life into the film by varying the camera angles as well as the settings (whether natural locations or interiors). Moreover he doesn't shy away from the causticity of the subject: like in the play, Joffé (who also co-wrote with playwright Pierre-Aristide Bréal and Gabriel Arout) denounces in turns: the inanity and cruelty of the rules of war (you can get shot by a firing squad if two horses go missing), the greed of the victors (the attempted takeover of the church's treasure), the stupidity of dictatorial and vain Captain Georges. Worse for the French, the real courage can be found not in the occupying army but among the Italians (a young peasant saves his wife from the French and surrenders when another is condemned to be shot in his place; the women are born resisters). All in all, 'Les Hussards' is actually a bitter comedy which generates forced laughs and is more profound than it looks at first sight.
Of course all this would not have amounted to much if Joffé had not chosen the right actors. But nothing to fear about that. Plump Bernard Blier (a clone of Obelix four years before Goscinny created the character!) and lanky Bourvil as his sidekick are amazingly fun to watch in a Laurel and Hardy-like relationship. Mention must also be made of Georges Wilson, hilarious as the blunt captain Georges. And there are several Italian actors and actresses who speak their mother tongue, which adds authenticity to the whole thing. A courageous choice too because people do not usually like making efforts when they go and see a popular comedy.
Well-made and offbeat, this too little seen historical tragicomedy is rich in gags and in plot twists. Feel free to watch it and laugh ... intelligently.
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