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‘Colonel Chabert’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 17, 1995


Yves Angelo
Gerard Depardieu;
Fanny Ardant;
Andre Dussollier;
Fabrice Luchini
little, if any, offensive material

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It's a French movie, set in the 19th century. It's based on a Balzac novel. It stars Gerard Depardieu. It has a plot line reminiscent of "The Return of Martin Guerre." Who says formula is the sole domain of Hollywood? But if "Colonel Chabert" smacks superficially of the last 20 French films you've seen, its details are fresh and vital.

For one thing, Balzac's tale -- about a husband given up for dead who lays claim to his remarried wife and fortune -- feels as modern and captivating as any courtroom drama of the day. (Although, unlike the slimy doings of Court TV, this legal tussle is classically charged; you don't feel dirty for watching.) For another, "Chabert" marks a robust directorial debut for former cinematographer Yves Angelo, whose evolution from image-making to storytelling is seamlessly assured.

In 1817, hyper-busy Paris lawyer Derville (Fabrice Luchini) grants an audience to an intense, scruffy man (Depardieu) with a head bandage who is so desperate to plead his case he has agreed to an appointment at 1 in the morning.

The stranger claims to be Colonel Chabert, a war hero who supposedly died at the battle of Eylau 10 years earlier. Rendered unconscious from a head wound and buried with the dead, he somehow survived the ordeal and, after penniless, Odyssean wanderings, has officially returned for his fortune. He says he has written to Chabert's widow, Countess Ferraud (Fanny Ardant), who is now married to Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier). But she has refused to reply.

His only recourse is to pursue this legally. If there is a romantic urge in the stranger's motivation, it is -- for now, at least -- cloaked with bitterness. The intrigued attorney, who happens to have the countess as a regular client, decides to take on the impoverished man's case.

"Even if I lose, I won't regret it," the lawyer mutters to himself. "I'll have seen the most skillful actor of our time."

"Chabert," which is about appearances and the darker, concealed impulses behind them, throws the motivations of all four principals into question. Is this angry, indignant man really Chabert? Why is the countess (who now has two children from her second marriage) hostile toward him, instead of being fascinated and curious? And what of Count Ferraud, who has recently learned he can land a peerage if he dumps the countess?

Perhaps most intriguing of all, what is lawyer Derville's grand plan for these bickering, plotting spouses? He watches the arguments, the screaming matches and the maneuvering with Machiavellian glee. When his opposing clients meet for the first time in his office, his eyeballs seem to water and bulge with exhilaration.

As a cameraman, Angelo has contributed handsomely to such French films as "Tous les Matins du Monde" and "Un Coeur en Hiver." Now he stakes a more authorial claim to his work -- and realizes it well. "Chabert" is good to look at, but it's more captivating for its direction. For instance, when the purported Chabert remembers his last battle, we see Bonaparte's cavalry "thundering" over a frigid, snowy landscape toward the enemy -- the soundtrack completely mute. But as soon as the horses reach the infantry, the brutal sounds of battle break through with shocking effectiveness. In a drama consisting mainly of people talking in rooms, Angelo's greatest work is in the subtle human interaction -- like the horrified but appreciative glance the countess gives her lawyer when he tells her the bracing truth about her legal situation.

"I'll never have a lawyer but you," she tells Derville. "What should I do?"

"Compromise, negotiate," replies Derville, his anticipatory yet sensitive expression caught fully in Angelo's frame. "It's the only way."

COLONEL CHABERT (Unrated) -- In French with subtitles. Contains little, if any, offensive material.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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