Daniel Vigne’s Le Retour de Martin Guerre – The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)

I watched a lot of movies with Gérard Depardieu. Not always because I wanted to, often because he was automatically cast in each and every bigger French production. Still, there are a few I haven’t seen yet and The Return of Martin Guerre or Le Retour de MartinGuerre was one of them. I thought it might be a good choice for Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July and so I watched it last week.

There are a lot of things I liked about this movie that is based on a true story that happened in France in the 16th century. The cinematography is stunning, the music by Michel Portal is really great, Depardieu is good and the lovely Nathalie Baye is wonderful. Last but not least I found out when watching this that the US movie Sommersby with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster is a remake of The Return of Martin Guerre.

In a medieval little village in France two young people get married. One couldn’t say that they get along well. The boy, Martin Guerre, is not exactly a good or tender husband, on the very contrary. It seems that married life is just too much for him. One day he runs off and doesn’t come back anymore.

Nine years later, a grown man arrives in the village and is enthusiastically greeted as Martin Guerre by everyone. Finally the runaway has returned to wife and family. Everybody recognizes him, welcomes him and he knows them all as well. He knows each and every little detail of their past life. Still they are aware that he has changed a lot. He tells them that he has been at war these past nine years and that he has seen a lot of awful things. Maybe war has made him a better man? He is joyful, easy-going and very gentle with his wife. The relationship they have is completely different from what they had before. They enjoy each other’s company and are very much in love. Others are affected by this happiness as well. It seems that the return of Martin Guerre changed everybody’s life for the better. Soon there will be a second child and things would be perfect if Martin did not decide to ask his uncle for money.

From this moment on, things change drastically. People start to say that he is not Martin Guerre. He is dragged into court but declared innocent. As soon as he is out there are new accusations and new proofs. The movie turns into a court room drama. He is acquitted again and accused once more.

Knowing that this is a true story and seeing the outcome is quite heartbreaking. It is also shown how great the influence of the Church is and how superstitions arise. At one point there is talk of the devil and of black magic. People really do not know whether it is him or not, everybody is confused.

Vigne’s movie is highly watchable and I liked especially how the music, the pictures and the story go hand in hand and complete each other.

I’m sorry for this blurred trailer. On top of that I couldn’t find the one with the English subtitles but the movie is available with English subtitles. At least you can hear a bit of Portal’s music.

Yves Angelo’s Le Colonel Chabert (1994)

I am really glad I have watched this movie. I liked every minute of it. It’s beautifully filmed, the interiors are wonderful, the actors are extremely good.

One of the problems I usually have when a movie is based on a book is that so much I liked has been left out. Le Colonel Chabert is an example of the opposite. Where the book gives us just a few details, the movie elaborates them. The character portraits are much more interesting; the Countess Ferraud and the lawyer Derville, have more depth and complexity and also the Count Ferraud, who is more or less just a distant presence in the book, becomes a real person.

I will not summarize the plot, I have already done this in the review of the novel, I will rather point out a few differences and how the film director managed to put into pictures what has before been put into words.

The movie starts with a view of the battlefield. This isn’t easy to watch. I mentioned somewhere else the problems I had with the movie Waterloo because of the dead horses. The amount of wasted horses is heartbreaking. The scene is very graphic; bodies of men and horses are piled up high and disposed of, just like garbage. There are three instances like this in the movie. They are falshbacks and represent what the Colonel Chabert remembers from the battle of Eylau where he was so severely wounded that he was reported dead.

While the book is rightly called Le Colonel Chabert, the movie could also have been called The Countess Ferraud. There is much more emphasis on her and the role and fate of women in the French society in the 19th century. She is not only greedy and ambitious like the Countess in the novel but she is also a woman who fights for her survival in the society. The movie shows that they are just pawns in a game and that “love” mostly equals lust and where that ends, “love” stops. A woman must constantly fear to be replaced by another one that is either more attractive or more likely to bring a man the social status or wealth he craves or the son he needs. I am not a fan of Fanny Ardant but she is excellent in this movie.

Derville’s role is also much more substantial. I like the way he speaks about his profession and how it made him unvover the ugliest in human society. The avarice, the greed, the fighting over money. Derville is truly a good person. He has seen so many vile acts that it seems to have transformed him into a better human being. There is not much to gain for him, in helping the Colonel, yet he does it anyway. Fabrice Luchini plays this incredibly well. The scene in which he visits the Colonel in his filthy abode is priceless.

Le Colonel Chabert is beautifully filmed. The decor, interiors and costumes are really worth watching. I particularly liked how the lawyer’s chambers were shown and the filthy backyard in which the Colonel lives.

Gerard Depardieu will always be one of my favourite actors no matter how often he parodies himself. I love his voice and he is often great. He is great in period drama but he excels in modern movies. The final scene of  Le Colonel Chabert shows him at his very best. This alone would have made this movie worth watching for me. On the other hand I have to point out that whoever is familiar with French cinema of the 80s and 90s knows that there is one thing to deplore. Whenever there was a big budget movie, it was more than likely he was casted. This makes it occasionally difficult to see the character and not the actor and his former roles. When I saw Chabert I also saw Rodin, the Count of Monte Christo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Vidocq, Vatel, Valjean, Columbus, Maheu, Jean de Florette and Balzac.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a trailer. I attached a few film stills instead.