A French superproduction presenting Maurice LeBlanc’s gentleman thief/adventurer in his original 1890s period but for a new generation – as in The Brotherhood of the Wolf, there’s a lot of Savate (French kickboxing) and the plot mixes the occult with the criminal. It’s mostly based on a single novel, The Countess of Cagliostro, but works in material about the antihero’s origins and adds a long coda set in 1913 – thus turning the whole thing a twisted family saga.
It opens with young Arsène (Guillaume Huet) taking a savate lesson from his father Theophraste (Nicky Naude), who is disapproved of by the snobby family of his wife Henriette (Marie Bunuel). When nasty authorities come to arrest Theophraste for being a thief, Henriette and her son are thrown out of the family by her aristo brother-in-law, le Duc de Dreux-Soubise (Robin Renucci). Things get complex when the apparently innocent and framed father tells his son that he is indeed a thief (but only ever steals from bad people or those too rich to care) and is then apparently killed by a robed accomplice on the road. Arsène grows up to be the dashing Romain Duris, found on a luxury liner lifting jewels and making the ladies swoon – and still devoted to his mother, who is ailing in a hospice and dies when the police try to arrest him during a visit. Even more set against society by this turn, Arsène becomes involved in a complicated feud between a monarchist conspiracy (his uncle-in-law is a member) and an apparent immortal, Countess Cagliostro (a splendid Kristin Scott Thomas).
Also see-sawing between both factions is Beaumagnan (Pascal Greggory), a nastier piece of work who nevertheless seems as concerned with Arsène’s sentimental education as getting the better of him and turns out – after several other possibilities have been explored – to be his long-lost father, having undergone plastic surgery and acted as a more cynical, violent, brutal adventurer (he reverses one vote among the conspiracy by dousing a wheelchair-ridden cardinal with brandy and setting fire to him, then shoving him out of a window), but is also perhaps a government secret agent working against both the conspiracy and the Countess (with whom he is smitten). It’s perhaps a problem that the hero’s father has a more complex life than he does, but the latter stages of the film make up for it as Lupin spurns the Countess, realising she really is a monster, and impregnates his cousin Clarisse (Eva Green), only for her to be murdered and his son kidnapped by the villainess, who raises him and turns him into a would-be assassin whom, in the coda, Lupin prevents from murdering Archduke Franz Ferdinand (implying that she later got the job done properly and started WWI).
As if this wasn’t enough, Marie Antoinette’s treasure is concealed in a cave which can be found by stealing and combining three trick crucifixes from various abbeys and museums, and the film delivers action chase scenes on trains and boats and carriages, terrorist-type bombs in restaurants and elsewhere, the Countess’s mobile luxury lair on a barge with a part-masked and mutilated devoted (but driven to rebel) minion, superb costumes and sets (and the usual French gorgeous people, most notably Duris and Green) and a lavish score. It may be too rich and absurd for most people, but plays a lot better than Vidocq. Directed and written by Jean-Paul Salomé, who also made the similarly-styled Belphegor; oddly, he didn’t go on to do Fantômas or Judex …