Last year, in bold defiance of post-pandemic doomsayers, French distributor Pathé doubled down on its commitment to the big-screen experience with its extravagant, no-expense-spared adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" - a starry two-part tentpole that featured dynamic, single-take swashbuckling sequences and a delectably wicked turn from Eva Green. As theatrical events go, it was fun, if not especially faithful to the book, demonstrating that the French could rival the Americans in showmanship.

Now, by way of an encore, Pathé followed up with a sweeping three-hour retelling of Dumas' crowning achievement, "The Count of Monte Cristo," at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Whereas "Megalopolis" and "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" swallowed up much of the oxygen at Cannes, "Count" premiered with far less fanfare, but felt like a genuine triumph: a stunning, emotionally satisfying adventure tale, built on rock-solid source material, executed with all the panache and spectacle of golden-era Hollywood epics, briskly paced and rousingly acted by an all-around stellar ensemble.

Featuring Pierre Niney in the title role, the movie seems newly relevant amid internecine conflicts and political grudge matches, reinforcing how everyone loses when injured parties focus their energy on getting even. Had co-directors Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de La Patellière's achievement been released in English a few decades earlier, it would easily be competing for a best picture Oscar. While practically every French schoolchild knows the story, American audiences will find plenty to surprise in what could be seen as the "Shawshank Redemption" of its day. Dumas put his protagonist through the ringer, courting tragedy the entire way.

As Orson Welles sagely observed, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." With "The Count of Monte Cristo," Dumas inverted readers' expectations, giving them a happy beginning instead. His hero, Edmond Dantès, will soon be promoted to captain, clearing the way to marry his beloved Mercédès (Anaïs Demoustier). For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the young sailor seems to be floating on champagne bubbles: giddy in love, reunited with his father and best friend, Fernand de Moncerf (Bastien Bouillon). Before the couple can say "I do," however, Dantès is falsely accused of conspiring with Napoleon, arrested and sent to an island prison.

For the next 14 years - about one hour of screen time - the handsome ex-mariner wastes away in the bowels of the Château d'If (a clever trick shot reveals prisoner Number 34's emaciated body, pans up the dank cell walls and settles on the scruffy face of its star, best known to Americans as the clean-cut young designer in "Yves Saint Laurent"). Had Dumas' story ended at the altar, we could have assumed a happily ever after. Instead, what begins with the best of times quickly devolves into the worst of times, as the next thousand or so pages of Dumas' classic romance novel recenters around the character's single-minded desire for revenge.

In this pursuit, Dantès could be a prototype for pulp superheroes such as Batman and the Green Hornet, who use their fortunes to strike out at evildoers, adapting their mansions into state-of-the-art vigilante headquarters. While locked away, Dantès meets Abbé Faria (Pierfrancesco Favino), who teaches him multiple languages and shares the location of a treasure fit for a sultan. As soon as he escapes, Dantès heads straight for the hiding place, using those riches to reinvent himself as one of the world's wealthiest men. Again, had the story stopped here, we might presume a happy ending.

Alas, upon his return, Dantès finds Mercédès married to ex-friend Moncerf, his career being enjoyed by rival Danglars (Patrick Mille) and his father dead, so he recalibrates his intentions: "From now on, I reward and I punish," he announces. Having witnessed his suffering, audiences have every reason to root for Dantès to crush the three men who double-crossed him: Moncerf, Danglars and Villefort (Laurent Lafitte), the procureur du roi who sent him away in order to protect his own hide. And yet, Dumas holds no illusions about the corrosive power of resentment, and the film rightly focuses on this all-important lesson.

By swearing himself to revenge, Dantès suffocates what he once knew of love, all but dooming his protégés, Haydée and Andrea, to deny their hearts and share in his hatred. Enchantingly played by Anamaria Vartolomeï ("Happening"), Haydée could be a problematic character by 21st-century standards: an orphaned slave whom Dantès buys as part of his master plan to get back at Moncerf (the military hero responsible for her father's death). It's a hitch easily corrected here, as Haydée is now presented as a willing accomplice in the elaborate retribution scheme.

The same goes for the Count's sulky apprentice (newcomer Julien De Saint-Jean, who suggests a junior Alain Delon), who calls himself Andrea Cavalcanti but is actually the illegitimate son of the corrupt prosecutor who framed Dantès in his ambitious climb to magistrate. Mercédès and Fernand also have a son, Albert (Vassili Schneider), who is roughly the same age, and serves as an added insult to the romance of which Dantès was deprived.

It's almost poetic the way the two young men represent alternate paths the Count's life might have taken: Albert (whom Haydée intends to seduce and abandon) embodies love, while Andrea might as well be hate incarnate - a duality which drives Delaporte and de La Patellière's thrillingly modern adaptation. Though comfortable with both pageantry and flair, the co-directors resist the showier flourishes that tripped up Martin Bourboulon in "The Three Musketeers," remaining focused on the theme of revenge throughout. The film covers serious ground in three hours, leaving just a few loose ends under-explained (like the fate of Danglars' fleet). For the rest, it surges forward on Jérôme Rebotier's dynamic score, which also serves to elevate Niney to the stature the role requires.

Back in the Chateau d'If, after sharing the treasure's whereabouts with Dantès, Abbé Faria tells the future Count, "The rest is your story - a man who holds the world in the palm of his hand." His words aren't Dantès' reward, but a test, and it takes the rest of the film for him to realize that to crush the world that wronged him would be to destroy himself in the process.

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2024-06-10T15:59:54Z dg43tfdfdgfd