The Return of Martin Guerre

Gerard Depardieu, Nathalie Baye, Roger Planchon. Directed by Daniel Vigne. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1. Dolby Digital. One side. 123 minutes. 1982. Fox-Lorber FLV5008. Not rated. $29.99.

A man returns to his village after a long absence to reclaim the wife and farm he rashly abandoned. At first, he is warmly welcomed by his family and friends. More importantly, he is gratefully appreciated as a more loving and compassionate husband by the wife he once took for granted. After a while, however, some of the villagers raise doubts about the man's identity, and while their motives are questionable, their accusations can't be easily dismissed. One thing leads to another, and a public trial is held. Nothing good comes of this.

Sound familiar? Maybe you recognize it as the plot of Sommersby, a grandly entertaining 1993 romantic drama featuring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster as star-crossed lovers in 19th-century Tennessee. But more than a decade before Sommersby, French director Daniel Vigne filmed a drama far more faithful to accounts of the 16th-century events that inspired both movies. The Return of Martin Guerre has it all: mystery and romance, suspense and surprises, impressive period detail, and timeless human emotion. Although there is much to admire in the Americanized remake, the original French production is in many ways even more affecting and thought-provoking.

Gerard Depardieu gives one of his greatest performances as Martin Guerre, the prodigal son who reappears in the village of Artigat after eight years on the road. At least, the character claims to be Martin Guerre. Although he seems to know everything about life in Artigat, he obviously has changed quite a bit. Then again, he left a callow youth and came back a wiser, war-tested adult. Bertrande (Nathalie Baye), Martin's long-neglected wife, accepts him as her husband, as do other members of the community---until Martin demands an accounting for money raised from farming his land during his absence.

Depardieu conveys enough brooding sexual magnetism and understated tenderness to win over almost any woman, even a dutiful wife who isn't absolutely certain that he is truly her husband. In addition, he persuasively conveys Martin's moral outrage, which, of course, could be part of a far different kind of performance. Watching Depardieu act while trying to decide how many roles he is playing at any given moment is an intrinsic part of this fascinating film's appeal.

Nathalie Baye, a curiously underrated actress whose credits include François Truffaut's Day for Night and Jean-Luc Godard's Detective, offers an equally complex portrayal as Bertrande. Here is a character shaped by the mores and attitudes of her time but blessed with a credible streak of independence and a surprising understanding of human nature. In short, this is a woman for all time, unlucky enough to be living in an age when her rights and needs are not yet acknowledged, much less respected.

The exceptionally vivid DVD edition of The Return of Martin Guerre is an unadulterated joy to behold. André Neau's crisp, earth-toned cinematography is as visually arresting as a Brueghel landscape. In many scenes, Depardieu's Martin Guerre stands apart from those around him simply because he's the only one wearing vibrant colors---a sky-blue shirt here, a bright red cap there. Late in the film, when another character appears in conspicuously similar attire, the image is every bit as devastating as the man's damning testimony.