Return of Martin Guerre, The (1982)

“Never was a husband so maligned!”

Synopsis:
In 16th century France, a young man named Martin Guerre (Stéphane Pean) leaves his wife (Sylvie Méda) and child to go off to war. Eight years later, a man (Gerard Depardieu) shows up in town and convinces his family and neighbors that he is Martin — but his uncle (Maurice Barrier) remains skeptical, especially when Martin insists on being paid the profits his land has made during his absence.

Genres:

Review:
Based on an infamous real-life court case, The Return of Martin Guerre remains one of the most fascinating tales of contested identity in both cinematic and historical memory. Depardieu gives a fine, earthy performance as the man claiming to be Martin Guerre (who may or may not be telling the truth), while Nathalie Baye’s nuanced portrayal as his abandoned wife (Bertrande) allows us to feel every moment of both her confusion and her tentative joy. The nicely paced script spends just enough time on each facet of the compelling story, moving from Martin and Bertrande’s earliest years of unhappy marriage, to Martin’s surprise arrival in town years later, to the brief period of renewed contentment Martin and Bertrande experience before suspicions are raised and Martin is put on trial (first informally, then in court). If you’ve never seen the film before, or can’t quite recall how it resolves, you’re guaranteed to be kept in genuine suspense. Meanwhile, the attention paid to period detail is enough to recommend the film purely from an ethnographic perspective, as we witness the fascinating minutiae of daily life for this village of hardworking, mostly illiterate, but seemingly content peasants.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gerard Depardieu as Martin Guerre
  • Nathalie Baye as Bertrande
  • Fine attention to period detail


  • Lovely cinematography by Andre Neau
  • Michel Portal’s unusual score

Must See?
Yes, as a compelling foreign drama. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Return of Martin Guerre, The (1982)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for its unique storytelling.

    In agreement that it’s a compelling film – and the attention to period detail/design/culture is very impressive. I also think Baye gives a lovely,
    delicate performance.

    The film has a number of interesting aspects to it: the whole idea of (in that time period) people being practically tied to each other in their community – so that being an individual is given little thought (i.e., if you don’t bear children, you let the community down or are seen as a disgrace); the spectre of superstition and myths; the overriding theme of people believing something because it’s what they choose or desire to believe because of its benefits.

    A particularly memorable sequence: the celebration of Candlemas, when young Martin is in a bear costume and is ‘castrated’; the whole mob mentality of the scene is – although playful in a vague sense – somewhat unsettling (considering everyone is in strange costumes).

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