“Cartouche” - Philippe de Broca (1962)

Cartouche (aka Swords of Blood, 1962) was a French historical action-comedy written and directed by Philippe de Broca that starred two epic film figures of that period, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claudia Cardinale. On the surface, the film is clearly a ridiculous historical farce, with broad comedic turns that border on slapstick. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a shameless and irreverent thief who mocks everyone he encounters. As such, the film appears to be directed at the adolescent community and anyone who enjoys seeing the authorities get their comeuppance. But the film has other dimensions and themes to it that are quite at odds with its lightweight tomfoolery, and these extra layers are what really interest me.

The story of the film is based on a real figure in French history, Louis-Dominique Bourguignon (1693 - 1721), who achieved legendary status in his day as a French Robin Hood who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. To deceive the authorities, he went by other names, too, including Louis Dominique Garthausen, Louis Lamare, and Cartouche. But whatever the historical reality of Bourguignon was, what we see in this film seems mainly to be tongue-in-cheek fantasy.  Nevertheless, there are some interesting aspects here that go beyond the superficial silliness.  One is associated the romantic personae of the two principal characters; and another is the dramatic swerve in the fourth act that altogether changes the tenor of the story.

The principal characters in Cartouche are

  • Louis-Dominique Bourguignon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) – a dauntless thief.
  • Venus (Claudia Cardinale) – a Parisian commoner.
  • Malichot (Marcel Dalio) – the original ringleader of the Parisian thieves. Dalio had a lengthy film and TV career that included appearances more than two decades earlier in the classics, La Grande Illusion (1937), Rules of the Game (1939), and Casablanca (1941).
  • Isabelle de Ferrussac (Odile Versois) – the wife of the Parisian Police Chief, Gaston de Ferrussac.
The film’s four acts are quite distinct, and in fact the fourth act utterly alters the entire mood and meaning of the film.
1.  Bourguignon, the Thief
The first act features Bourguignon’s devilish antics, as he careens around the city streets picking pockets at his leisure. As a member of Malichot’s gang, he is supposed to be subservient to his ruthless master, but his natural rebelliousness prevents him from appropriately knuckling under to  the chief. He also meets and wins the love of the street wench Venus during this part, but he and his two pals have to flee Paris after rudely challenging Malichot’s leadership.

2.  In the Army
To escape punishment from Malichot’s thugs, Bourguignon and his two friends run away and join the army.  But the army is commanded by witless fools who sacrifice their soldiers in near-suicidal encounters with their enemies. Although fearless, Bourguignon looks out for himself first, so he deserts the conflict and runs for cover. Hiding in the bushes, he and his friends are the only ones to survive one of their company’s futile attacks, which winds up earning them decorations as heroes.

3.  Cartouche in Command
Bourguignon returns to Paris, now under his new name of Cartouche, and he reclaims Venus and again challenges Malichot. This time he gets the upper hand, and the entire gang rallies to follow the more humane Cartouche, who tells them they should only steal from the undeserving rich. So Cartouche becomes the king of the Paris thieves, and Venus is his queen.

4.  Cartouche and Isabelle
In the final act the film abruptly turns away from its previously carefree tenor. The pivotal event is one of Cartouche’s robberies during which he encounters a regal, upper-class woman, Isabelle de Ferrussac, whom he had briefly seen in the first act. Isabelle’s aristocratic air and reserved demeanor ultimately proves to be an irresistible challenge to Cartouche. Unabashedly lustful of Isabelle even in front of Venus, Cartouche openly throws himself at the feet of the still hesitant Isabelle. Soon, though, Cartouche is arrested by the police and headed for the gallows. Despite Cartouche’s betrayal, Venus leads the gang in a desperate rescue, but she dies in his arms during the skirmish. In the finale, Cartouche grimly conducts a grand nocturnal burial by placing Venus’s body, now covered with stolen jewels, in a stolen golden coach and sinking it in the river.

For much of the film, Cartouche is a relentless sequence of prankish acts on the part of Belmondo and his wiseguy pals. This is exemplified in the pirouette-filled sword fights that frequent the action.  In fact it might be interesting to compare the choreographed swordplay in Cartouche with what appeared later in Asian martial arts films.  In both settings the almost ludicrous acrobatics are very carefully staged, but the later Chinese martial arts action is probably more seamless and skillful.  On the other hand, the swordplay in Cartouche is performed without the benefit of special effects.  Nevertheless, there is something disturbing in Cartouche in connection with the film’s casual depiction of killing.  Cartouche and his pals are seen smirking their way through numerous scenes filled with blood and guts. Is all this carnage supposed to be funny? What kind of culture do we have that supports this attitude? Perhaps it is just part and parcel with the cavalier tough-guy attitude that prevails in this context.

The real lasting feature of Cartouche, though, is the fact that it stands as the ultimate vehicle showcasing its two stars, Belmondo and Cardinale. Jean-Paul Belmondo was perhaps the French anti-hero of this period, but with impertinent and comic overtones. He emerged to become an iconic cultural figure with his role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1959).  Critics at the time struggled to articulate just what was the essence of Belmondo’s charm. Clearly he was not classically handsome, and he was sometimes characterized as “handsome-ugly”. But he did have a kind of naturally good-natured recklessness that was appealing to women (or so they tell me). Basically, he was a naughty boy, a wiseguy, who was continually forgiven for his transgressions – the kind of guy that the gangsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) imagined themselves to be. And it was Cartouche that best displayed Belmondo’s impertinent persona. 

Claudia Cardinale was an entirely different figure.  She was one of those unique actresses who projected a feminine allure that somehow went well beyond mere physical beauty.  There are others who had this kind of magic, too, such as Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, and Maria Schneider.  But perhaps Claudia Cardinale was my favorite of all of them.  She was naturally beautiful, without need of any adornment, and she was always physically sensuous, passionate, and innocent all at the same time.  Static images do not capture her charm; you have to see her flashing eyes in action.  She was the ultimate screen goddess, and she lit up every scene that she was in. 

So I assume that anyone watching Cartouche is naturally mystified when in the third act Cartouche turns his back on Venus (Cardinale) and falls for Isabelle. Clearly on the level of pulchritude, Claudia Cardinale, as Venus, was far more desirable than Odile Versois (who is pretty in her own way), as Isabelle.  Cardinale suggests passionate, animated engagement, in comparison to Versois’s bleached-out passivity.  What was it about Isabelle that so charmed Cartouche?  (I will set aside the possibility that de Broca simply erred by casting the too-beautiful Cardinale in the role of the street wench, Venus.) Perhaps it was the fact that Isabelle was refined and oh-so upper-class. This made her an iconic trophy that Cartouche, the embodiment of French masculine charm, simply had to have. But there is another factor, too, to consider: Isabelle was a blonde. And it might be said that the mysterious seductiveness of blondes is even greater in France than elsewhere. In fact the French even hold academic conferences where their intellectuals examine and discuss the nature of why they are so attracted to blondes [1]. 

Whatever it is that fueled Cartouche’s downfall – blondes, class – it doesn’t matter. What lingers by the end of the downbeat fourth act is the unfathomably self-destructive craving that often leads men to turn away from what they hold most precious. Why are we so often like that? We viewers know that Venus was Cartouche’s messenger from God.  But Cartouche at the end of the story is still blind to his failings, and he covers Venus’s naturally beautiful form with jewels – as if those artificial decorations could somehow enhance her perfection. What we are left with at the end is an enhanced awareness of romantic engagement’s ultimate ephemerality. Isabelle was a frozen image, a static cosmetic form; while Venus embodied the promise of interactive magic that may come.


  1. Henry Samuel, “French University to Study Whether Gentleman Really Do Prefer Blondes”, The Telegraph (2009), 13 January 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/4230941/French-university-to-study-whether-gentleman-really-do-prefer-blondes.html.

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