Perhaps my mistake was watching this when I was under the weather. I came down with something in the middle of the week and watching tv was about all I was up for, so I figured I’d watch something for the blog. And I settled on Dragon Knight (2003, dir. Hélene Angel, aka Rencontre avec le dragon, aka Red Dragon aka The Red Knight; French with subtitles) a film so obscure its Wikipedia page is barely more than a stub, despite starring well-known French actor Daniel Auteuil. But watching this film in my weakened state was a serious error it will take some time to recover from.
The film is set at some unspecified time during the later Middle Ages, in gorgeous southern France. It’s about a 15-year-old boy Felix (Nicholas Nollet) who wants to become a knight because he’s heard a story about the brave Knight of the Red Dragon (or just the Red Dragon), a great hero who rescued his young friend Raoul from a fire and was baptized by the fire (the Red Dragon of different titles) so that he won’t die, although he’s horribly burned. Eventually Felix finds the Red Dragon, Guillaume de Montauban (Auteuil), but learns to his surprise that Montauban is really just a bounty hunter, currently seeking a poet who ran away from the papal court. There’s another bounty hunter, Mespoulede (Gilbert Melki), also hunting the runaway poet, leading a substantial band of thugs who help him. Raoul (Sergi Lopez) is following Montauban, having gone insane; there’s a very complex and angst-ridden back story here involving a love triangle. There’s also a runaway mother superior who’s looking for the poet. Over the course of the film, Felix gradually becomes disillusioned with his hero, who fails to match up to his expectations and wrestles with his own personal demons.
It’s a very French film. People you can’t empathize with are doing things you don’t really understand. This is the sort of film where people get histrionic whenever there’s a moment’s downtime to reflect on how awful their past is, and spend much of the film so physically or emotionally exhausted that they fall down a lot at dramatic moments. If you pay attention you can piece together most of the back story, although you’ll have to care a lot more than I did. Half the cast appear to be delusional from grief at different moments. And the film is riddled with unexplained plot points. Why has the pope placed such a huge bounty on the poet? Why has Mespoulede’s horse died? Who’s the guy who’s wearing a half-face mask and getting angry at Montauban? Where did the baby go? What does the pope want with all those children? Why do Mespoulede and Montauban hate each other? I realize I haven’t explained any of that, but neither does the film. It seems to think that being a French film is an automatic license for not explaining things.
From a historical standpoint, the film is sort of incoherent. Montauban is a former crusader, and there’s another crusade supposed to be getting ready, but this is entirely irrelevant to the film; at no point does crusading actually matter at all. As I said, it’s unclear when the film is set; if I had to take a guess, it would be the early 14th century, because the pope seems to be living in France. But the sets, other than the gorgeous French countryside, suggest some time around the 12th century. But the pope is waiting at Aigues-Mort (misspelled in the subtitles as “Wegmort”), which wasn’t founded until the 1240s. But that’s not a problem because apparently Aigues-Mort is just an empty beach.
At first I thought the film’s costume designer was following the “it’s medieval, so it’s all the same” theory of costuming. Montauban spends the whole film wearing a long leather gown with square metal plates sewn onto it, and several other characters wear variations on this. Perhaps this is supposed to be a 14th century coat of plates, but it’s not. He also wears a 15th century tournament helmet with wings on it, but only when it provides a good camera shot. Felix runs around in a gambeson and knee guards, while Raoul mostly just wears a big sweater. Mespoulede seems to have a metal grill sewn onto his gambeson, and some of his men are wearing metal forehead guards.
But then about an hour into the film, the pope arrives with a massive entourage, and then I realized that the costumer designer was actually smoking crack. The pope is wearing some sort of golden bulb on his head and massive platform shoes, looking like a dropout from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s attended by knights in late medieval plate armor, one of whom is wearing—I am not kidding about this—an enormous metal tutu. The pope’s drummers are all covered in white body paint, and the crowd of people around him are variously wearing leather fleeces, generic rags, cloth-of-gold gowns, and red versions of KKK robes. The pope is apparently kidnapping children for his fiendish plot to tonsure them; I’m not really sure about that, but the film puts it out just to drop it entirely.
After everything else wrong with this film, pointing out that it repeats the myth that medieval armor was so heavy that knights had to be lowered onto their horses with a crane is sort of an anticlimax.
Also, for reasons that aren’t explained, in a movie that is otherwise trying to be brutally realistic (at least what it imagines brutal realism about the Middle Ages would be), Raoul is a were-pig. He turns into a boar every night. At first I thought perhaps this was supposed to be symbolism, but no, he’s a were-pig. And his dead wife is wandering around covered in blood and talking to people. This really wasn’t a fair twist to throw at me in my weakened state, because I started thinking that maybe I was sicker than I thought and having hallucinations.
In case you hadn’t understood what I’m trying to tell you, this is not a film for watching. This is a film for putting aside and not looking at. This movie needs a warning label (although all the various titles it’s had might qualify, since that’s often a sign of a not-good film). This is not a film for the young, the elderly, or the immune compromised. For the love of God, Montresor, listen to my frantic cries! It’s too late for me; I’ve already seen it and my head hurts. (No joke; I actually got feverish after the film.) But there’s still time to save yourself. Watch an episode of Reign instead.
Update: My friend Bill has suggested that the metal tutu is probably inspired by Henry VIII’s tournament armor. It’s a genuine style of armor, called a tonlet. Clearly, someone associated with this film saw this and thought “I want that in my film! It’s within 200 years of the period of the film, so that will be ok.” Most tonlets aren’t fluted like this one, which was meant to be worn on a horse, not on foot. Thanks, Bill!
Want to Know More?
Dragon Knightis, unfortunately, available from Amazon. You’ve been warned.
You might also want to lay in a supply of this: