“The Return of Martin Guerre” Review

The Return of Martin Guerre [1982] – ★★★★

From Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958] to Mangold’s Identity [2003], there is nothing like a film that makes the audience question the identity of a character, and The Return of Martin Guerre is not only one of those interestingly-premised films, but it is also one based on a true story or a legend from France that tells of a man from the sixteenth century who returns from the war to his family in a small village only for his identity to be questioned as he was later tried as an impostor. That man is Martin Guerre, played by Gerard Depardieu, who is welcomed back to his community after the absence of some eight years. Everybody, from his beautiful wife Bertrande, played by Nathalie Baye, to his sisters and friends are overjoyed to have Martin back, that is until his uncle Pierre starts to suspect that something is amiss with this “prodigal son”, this “returned-from-the-dead” man, whose popularity is shockingly contrary to his previous character and behaviour. Soon, the small French village is divided into two camps: (i) those who believe that the recently arrived man is, indeed, Martin Guerre, and (ii) those sceptics who regard the man as an impostor. What is the truth? The Cesar Award-winning production and Academy Award-nominated costume design ensure that what we see on screen is the considerate historical drama that pays close attention to the past times depicted, though it is still the lead stars (Depardieu and Baye)’ screen presence and the intriguing aspects of the story that ultimately seal the deal for the audience.

One of the film’s immediate problems is that the story starts with the wife of Martin, Bertrande, telling her story, and the film does not quite manage to differentiate for the viewer what is happening now and what has already happened in the past, which may cause some confusion. However, thankfully, half way through the story, the film drops this tale-within-a-tale narrative, and settles for a more traditional approach, which starts to focus on all the suspicions surrounding Martin Guerre and all the entailed legal processes. To appreciate the “high stakes” of the story, it is important to recall that, in the Middle Ages/Renaissance, a community meant everything to a person, especially one residing in a village, and without it, it is as though he or she was not living. There was no such thing as a truly “private” life, as we now envisage it, and ex-communication or banishment was feared more than death itself. Thus, it becomes clear why it is so important for the man in the story to convince the people around him that he is truly who he claims to be.

And, the film does start transporting the audience to the late Middle Ages from its very first scenes, showing the village’s peasants, dressed in colourful clothes, re-enacting their centuries-old celebratory village traditions to the music score by Michel Portal (Field of Honour [1987]). And, also from its very first scenes, the film starts to generate much sympathy for the increasingly likable supposed Guerre, and much of it is due to the charms of Depardieu himself (and his passionate outbursts). The returned Martin makes friends with everyone, and appears radically different from his farmer’s-lifestyle-averse previous self, while also making mistakes as to the location of certain articles in his house. However, the war can change a person that much, or can it? In the meantime, the identity suspicions mount further. For one thing, some witnesses claim that the man arrived is not Guerre, but Arnaud de Tilh (alias Pansette), and, then, the village’s shoemaker claims that the alleged Guerre’s feet have miraculously shrunk in size. The film plot’s does “thicken” somewhat in the second half, but then also leads to a straight-forward and rather underwhelming denouement.

Though lacking nuance and that thought-provoking ambiguity that is present in its American counterpart Sommbersy [1993], which transported the story of Martin Guerre to the times of the Civil War, Daniel Vigne’s film, based on a 1941 novella, is still a handsome one, re-telling the famous case of possible impersonation with much skill and consideration, while also showcasing the talent of its leading (of that time) French stars – Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye.


One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.