A remarkably involving and touching period drama, the admirable new French import "The Return of Martin Guerre," opening today at the K-B Janus and Outer Circle, exhibits the sort of characteristics that used to be synonymous with "solid" movie storytelling.
The director, Daniel Vigne, has sustained a fascinating illusion of period authenticity, reconstructing the drama of a compelling legal dispute and inquiry that disrupted the rural community of Artigat in the mid-16th century. Vigne's principal shooting location was Balaque, a surviving traditional farm hamlet in the same region, the foothills of the Pyrenees, and his principal historical adviser was Nathalie Davis, a Princeton professor whose specialty is 16th-century France. Few movies have ever achieved a more effective atmospheric immersion in the past.
The effects go beyond the illusions possible through knowledgeable and artful costuming, set design and composition. A profound sense of the past has seeped into the way the actors embody their roles.
Ultimately, the story generates its strongest emotional appeal through the recognition of how desperately yet heroically Martin (Gerard Depardieu), the mysterious runaway who has returned to his family after a nine-year disappearance, and his wife Bertrande, beautifully played by Nathalie Baye, have struggled to sustain a genuine marital bond in the face of powerfully inhibiting and compromising social pressure. Resolution of the mystery of disputed identity uncovers a far more stirring mystery of the heart, transforming an intriguing "courtroom" melodrama, circa 1560, into a tragically exalted, heartbreaking love story.
The primary source for the legend of Martin Guerre is a contemporary account written by Jean de Coras, a magistrate who was obliged to investigate and then sit in judgment on the case. Vigne exploits Coras as the principal narrator of the screenplay, and Roger Planchon portrays him with impressive dignity and intelligence. While dedicated to seeking out the truth of the Martin Guerre mystery and fulfilling the duties of his office, Coras is also keenly aware of the deeper implications of the case.
In 1542 Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols, still in their early teens, are married, a union arranged by their families. Initially, the attachment proves humiliating for the young bridegroom, who appears impotent and must endure the supposedly therapeutic ministrations of a village crone and then the village priest, whose ceremony consists of lashing both Martin and Bertrande, stripped of their clothes, to a post and circling them with a flail while chanting the words of exorcism. Weathering these ordeals and the facetious abuse of their neighbors, the young couple have a child, a son named Sanxi, and things seem to calm down. Then, following a beating at the hands of his father, who suspects Martin of stealing, the young man suddenly vanishes.
During Martin's extended absence, his parents die and Bertrande's father dies. Her widowed mother marries Martin's uncle Pierre, an alliance that also unites the Rols and Guerre farmlands under a single ownership. When the long-lost son returns, in the robust, outgoing form of Depardieu's grown-up Martin, the initial reaction in Artigat is unanimous gratification.
Martin seems a little slow to place some faces and recall some details of village lore, but he remembers much more with startling vividness, and considering his experience in the intervening years as a soldier of the king in the new colony of Brazil and the war in Flanders, it would scarcely seem unusual if some early impressions had grown hazy.
At any rate, Martin is welcomed back with open arms by friends and family. Naturally, the reunion is especially welcome for Bertrande, rescued from a nine-year siege of dependence, pity and stubbornly guarded chastity. When Baye returns Depardieu's ardent embrace with a quivering expulsion of breath that takes your breath away and tearfully whispers, "How much I've wanted you!," it's a romantic highlight of considerable impact.
Several years pass in which Martin works the farm with uncle Pierre and enjoys further marital felicity. Bertrande loses one child. But a second, a daughter, survives to enhance their happiness.
The first sign of trouble appears when a vagabond claims that he recognizes Martin from army service--though not as Martin Guerre, who was also a comrade in arms, but as a soldier called Pansette, from the village of Tihl. Agitated, Martin foolishly reinforces suspicions aroused by the vagabond.
One day in the fields he impulsively demands an accounting from his uncle of the farm profits accumulated during his absence and threatens legal action to retrieve "his" property. Violently--and in many respects justifiably--offended by this demand, Pierre responds by accusing him of being an impostor. This dispute provokes the climactic series of events that begins with Coras' preliminary inquiry in Artigat and ends with the revelations of the truth about Martin Guerre at a public trial in Toulouse.
Within the unfamiliar, intriguing framework of a 16th-century trial, Vigne and the cast succeed in illuminating a great deal more than the facts about a haunting case history. They contrive to be imaginatively true to both a historical record and a vision of tragically ennobling romance. THE RETURN OF MARTINE GUERRE
Directed by Daniel Vigne; screenplay by Daniel Vigne and Jean-Claude Carriere; original music by Michel Portal; director of photography, Andre Neau; art director, Alain Negre; edited by Denise de Casabianca; produced by Societe Francaise de Production Cinematographique and Societe de Production de Films Marcel Dassault. 111 minutes. THE CAST Martin Guerre....Gerard Depardieu Bernard Pierre Donnadieu Bertrande de Rols....Nathalie Baye Jean de Coras....Roger Planchon Judge Rieux....Maurice Jacquemont Catherine Boere....Isabelle Sadoyan