The Return of Martin Guerre


$22.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gerard Depardieu, Nathalie Baye.

You don’t need stolen credit card numbers or bank information to engage in identity theft, a reality that extends backwards in screen history well beyond “Mad Men” icon Don Draper to possibly even French tillers of land. And it’s this “possibly” part in 1982’s The Return of Martin Guerre that provides the drama, as it looks at the effect its title’s mysterious not-exactly-stranger has on a 16th-century village. A onetime arthouse hit that Hollywood later modified and more or less remade, it boasts two international stars, one or two familiar faces from French cinema and a lot of cackling chickens who’d probably be crossing the road if there were any roads here beyond modest horse paths.

Despite all this activity, I’m most struck here by the most pleasing 4K treatment we get in the latest Blu-ray release from Cohen Media Group, a distributor that so often seems to make foreign-language films look even better than I remember from their original theatrical engagements. Of course, there was a little to work with here. Anne-Marie Marchand’s costume design for a film without a whole lot of cafe society got an Oscar nomination, losing to Fanny and Alexander (well, you can’t fight that one), while the production design (Alain Negre) took one of MG’s three Cesar Awards.

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A major spear-header of the production was director Daniel Vigne, who also co-authored the screenplay (with Bunuel favorite Jean-Claude Carriere) from a real-life story that has inspired varied stage/screen riffs in different settings over the years even beyond Hollywood’s take. This comes directly from the Blu-ray’s bonus interview of the picture’s female lead Nathalie Baye, an actress one always sensed even way back when would age gracefully (and indeed she has). Her character is in a grin-and-bear-it marriage with Martin — though, actually, there isn’t too much grinning in this picture other than during celebrations one of which takes place when Martin, uh, returns.

Told in flashback, the story’s anchor is the final debriefing between Baye’s character (Bertrande) and a judge of note (Roger Planchon, one of those familiar French-actor faces I mentioned) over what we’ve just seen transpire. Husband Martin is inadequate in multiple ways, and one day he up and disappears for years. When he returns after fighting for years in some vague war, he looks a little different from what folks had remembered. But no one seems to notice much, even his wife — though because Gerard Depardieu is playing him, it’s safe to say that he probably would look different from just about any other human specimen you could name. Helping to mitigate any doubts is the minute personal information he carries around — details about his marriage ceremony, scars and moles, those kinds of things.

The old Martin was not without controversy — he abandoned his wife, for one thing — but comes from a kind of “connected” clan and had no shortage of friends or friendly acquaintances. There was always a little tension between him and his well-heeled uncle, but things are now going smoothly, and especially with wife Bertrande. Until, that is, Martin/Depardieu raises the issue over money he thinks he’s owed by his elder relative, which has a way of destroying family harmony. Also around this time comes an accusation by a couple stray vagabonds that Depardieu’s new-and-improved Martin isn’t Martin at all but an imposter they recognize from their wanderings. These aren’t guys with whom you’d trust your last onion, but they plant just enough doubt that at least some of the populace begins to note certain inconsistencies with their memories. (Up till then, the village has been pretty big on groupthink.)

This leads to a trial to that consumes a lot of the movie — one with enough back-and-forth and ambushing surprises emerging to send William Talman’s “Perry Mason” character (Hamilton Burger, which always cracked me up from a nickname POV) to the men’s room on a continual loop. Even so, this is less interesting than the human dynamics here. They give the movie a little extra kick and enabled it to catch on to a degree in the U.S. at a time when a solid French movie could still get booked into single-screen theater in a gray-matter city and wangle a multi-month run.

The 1993 remake, shoehorned into a Civil War setting, was Sommersby. Roger Ebert had a point in his published pan when he said the update made its central conceit (that so many acquaintances could find themselves uncertain one way or another) tougher to swallow than it is in a predecessor set in medieval times. Still, the chemistry was so good between Richard Gere and Jodie Foster that the result still ranks among the most tolerable of the European retreads. Think of the stillborn attempts of Hollywood to have its way with France’s Diabolique and Germany’s Wings of Desire (which was called City of Angels, if you’ve forgotten — and if you haven’t, why not?).

Martin Guerre isn’t among my true favorite foreign-language releases of the period — Danton, which would soon follow with Depardieu, is — but it’s deftly planed-and-sanded and, as mentioned, looks most handsome on the home screen. I had forgotten that Depardieu took the ’83 best actor citation from the National Society of Film Critics, though it was an award shared with his performance in that same Andrzej Wajda epic about George Jacques Danton’s French equivalent of “mano a mano” with Maximilien Robespierre. That one hasn’t gotten an American Blu-ray release but is available in a couple all-region imports.

Mike’s Picks: ‘When We Were Kings’ and ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’