“That was very French—but in a good way!” So sayeth The Flower after we emerged from this classic French film about a man who returns from the war after many years a much better and much changed fellow. He’s so changed, in fact, that he becomes a relatively young and slim Gerard Depardieu, two attributes I have never really associated with Depardieu. This may, in fact, have been his “breakthrough” role for Americans. (There was a time French actors actually became semi-famous in America for being in French films. Then they’d do some American films and, well, usually go right back to doing French films.)
Our story, allegedly based on fact—actually, let’s unravel this a little because it’s kind of confusing: In 1941, author Janet Lewis published a novella called The Wife of Martin Guerre. This served as the basis for the movie, co-written by historienne Natalie Zemon Davis, who subsequently went on to write the novel The Return of Martin Guerre. Both those ladies were American (Davis apparently claims partial Canadian status but we’ll allow it), yet the very Frenchness of the story makes it not at all surprising that they would pick this idea up first. (The American version Somersby, when it was eventually made, featured Jodie Foster and Richard Gere at their heights and was not remembered well enough to be forgotten.)
Anyway, our story is that Martin Guerre marries Bertrand de Rois (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me If You Can) in what seems to be a felicitous arrangement for their families, but Guerre is a jerk. Young and impotent, many weird medieval remedies are applied to get him to, y’know, fertilize his wife. (This is a huge deal.) He succeeds and a son is conceived.
Then he runs off.
Many years later (seven or eight) he returns. “Here I am,” he says, “don’t you know me?” And one by one, the villagers all decide he is, in fact, Martin Guerre. Now, we, the audience, know it’s not Martin Guerre because we’ve seen Martin Guerre and he was no Gerard Depardieu. And there are a few suspicious lapses. But you know, maybe that’s just a movie thing. I mean, after all, the guy we knew was a skinny young teenager and Depardieu is in his 30s by this point, so maybe it is him.
But it can’t be him, not really, or you’d have no movie, right?
Still, the movie expertly convinces us that it is him. Everything goes well for years, in fact, until Martin confronts his uncle (who has married his mother) over some family property. That’s pretty convincing, right? If you were an impostor, the last thing you’d do is bring attention to yourself. But even with us being pretty sure that it’s not Martin, the uncle is a bit of a fiend and certainly dishonest in his dealings with Martin, so you sorta do begin to suspect that it is Martin and the whole specter is being raised by the uncle to keep control of this property.
There’s even a hearing in the small village in which Martin definitively proves his identity. And you think, well, okay, maybe it’s him and maybe he’s just getting away with it, but good enough either way. But then the dastardly uncle forces (or forges) an accusation out of Martin’s wife and the whole thing goes to trial again in the big city of—I forget which, but it’s not Paris. It’s actually a pretty small town but all the witnesses have to relocate for the duration of the trial and they gawp at all the huge buildings…I mean, there’s like a three story building in there…and make their beds in various barns and what-have-yous.
The movie feels very authentic in this regard. The villagers are quasi-pagan in a lot of their rituals despite the omnipresent church. The villages are dirty and often the villagers are as well, but director Daniel Vigne never misses a chance to show the beautiful countryside and doesn’t wallow in the degradation of the people. A lot of them are as rough as you’d expect them to be, but never as squalid as you’d see in (say) a Terry Gilliam film. He’s very much about the decency of the people in difficult times, without glamorizing it.
It boils down to an unusual and very French love story, told with conviction and without a Hollywood sentimentality. We all liked it without reservation (cf. The Crime of Monsieur Lange).