Revealing an altogether different ghostwriter than Roman Polanski’s, “Dumas” is a fascinating and gorgeously told tale of the great French author’s relationship with Auguste Maquet, the little known co-author of such classics as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Adapted by scribe-helmer Safy Nebbou from a 2003 stage play, the pic features Gerard Depardieu in full hedonistic mode as the writer who (in all ways) was larger than life, while Benoit Poelvoorde’s depiction of the auteur’s neglected sidekick is a convincing mix of repression and desire. Feb. 10 Gallic rollout should be followed by consummate arthouse play.
“If I were a sculptor, I’d start with her ass” is one of the first things we hear from the mouth of Alexandre Dumas (Depardieu), who, when the film begins, is at the height of a career that seems to leave little time for writing and lots of time for drinking, eating and overzealous lovemaking. On a trip to Normandy with trusty co-writer Maquet (Poelvoorde), he claims to be seeking inspiration but spends his time bedding one farmer’s daughter after another (“The illiterate ones are the wildest,” he remarks), while Maquet seems to be doing most of the actual authorship.
But things aren’t necessarily that simple, and it soon becomes clear that, although Maquet takes care of the legwork, Dumas has a brilliant mind capable of penning whole passages in his head and finding the perfect line to seal a chapter. Their relationship — as was often the case with highly productive 19th-century French writers — is more akin to that of a painter and his apprentice: One guides while the other executes.
One of the several nuances in the screenplay by Nebbou and co-scribe Gilles Taurand (“The Army of Crime”) is the way it shows that, while both Dumas and Maquet are obviously talented, they can only express themselves by working together. Otherwise, they’re doomed to either massive writer’s block or mediocrity.
Such a collaboration is bound to cause friction, and when Charlotte (Melanie Thierry), the nymphlike daughter of an imprisoned revolutionary, mistakes Maquet for the literary legend, he decides to play the role and grows resentful toward Dumas. The quid pro quo between the three, plus the presence of the writer’s prickly right-hand lady/g.f. (Dominique Blanc), explodes into a war of egos and backstabbing that spills over into the revolutionary uprisings of the late 1840s.
As with his 2008 thriller, “Mark of an Angel,” Nebbou aptly depicts how two characters fighting for the same objective can wind up scrambling their identities in the process — an idea more accurately reflected by the original French title, “L’autre Dumas” (“The Other Dumas”).
Depardieu is clearly in his element portraying an artist whose lifestyle — replete with lots of ladies and a massive castle he named “Le Chateau de Monte-Cristo” — seems more like that of a modern-day rap star. After “Coco Before Chanel,” Poelvoorde once again shows that he can tone down his loony antics to play a role with respect and restraint, while Thierry’s perf is a cut above her previous efforts.
Tech package is marked by Stephane Fontaine’s (“A Prophet”) fabulous widescreen lensing and a score by Hughes Tabar-Nouval that kicks things up in just the right places.