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Fox Lorber presents
The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre) (1982)

"One day, some vagabonds slept in the barn...."
- Bertrande (Nathalie Baye)

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: January 09, 2002

Stars: Gérard Depardieu, Nathalie Baye
Other Stars: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Roger Planchon, Maurice Jacquemont, Isabelle Sadoyan, Rose Thiery
Director: Daniel Vigne

Manufacturer: Nimbus
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (very brief nudity)
Run Time: 02h:02m:18s
Release Date: January 15, 2002
UPC: 720917050089
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AA-B+ D+

DVD Review

A young man—perhaps your husband, your father, your brother or a neighbor—simply abandons his life one day and, as suddenly, returns nearly a decade later. He has been to war, and what he has experienced has changed him. His slight figure has filled-out, his features have weathered and his attitude has matured. Would you know him?

The Return of Martin Guerre is based on the true and fascinating story of just such an event that occurred in XVI-century Artigat, a French village in the Pyrenean foothills. The bizarre case that ensued, brought before the Parliament seat in Toulouse, was deemed so extraordinary at the time, a judge marked it in the court records for posterity. Shot entirely on location, director Vigne and his team frame the village, the period and this twisting story in exquisite detail, allowing us to participate in the complexities and nuances of law, religion and daily life as it was, on the cusp between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Catholic domination and the rise of Protestantism.

Martin Guerre is an unresponsive boy who is married (young, as it was done) into the de Rols family. It is the hope of the parents to join their adjacent lands for the prosperity of all. Although his wife, Bertrande, loves him, Martin is an uncommunicative and disinterested husband, and lazy in his work. Finally, one day, he leaves with a band of mercenaries and Bertrande is left to raise their son alone, and to continue her work as the family prospers. In 1557, after "eight or nine winters," a man walks into the village and is recognized as her long-lost husband. The family embraces him, and the languishing Bertrande takes him back to their marriage bed.

Three years pass; Bertrande has given birth to a second child and Martin approaches his uncle Pierre to ask for the profits his land had acquired in his absence. Doubt, based on various rumors, rears its dangerous head, and Martin is accused of being an imposter. Details that we now recognize as primitive forensics are employed to weigh the evidence of his identity. When he is pronounced to be who he claims to be in an informal hearing, the uncle uses underhanded means to accuse him again, this time before Parliament at Toulouse.

Gérard Depardieu plays the man who returns to Artigat and casts a glamour over the village. You want to believe him, even if you think he is lying. His performance is mindful, tempered and achingly sincere; the medieval setting suits him. Nathalie Baye, who could have equally stepped straight out of a Bruegel canvas, is positively genuine as Bertrande, on whose testimony a man's life comes to rest. Roger Planchon is the quietly bemused Jean de Coras, the judge who would come to record the unusual proceedings.

The story, and questions it raises about things we readily accept—such as what defines one's identity—are so intriguing that one might overlook the impeccable details that set the tone. The architecture and garments, the rituals and implements of daily life create an organic atmosphere of a centuries-old reality; the muddy feet, dusty hems and sweat-streaked faces render the characters tangibly. While I did enjoy the 1993 American redux, Sommersby, the original telling, based on a novel written from actual court transcripts, remains the more powerful of the two, relying more on dramatic story-telling than dramatic acting.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In this age of digital wizardry, it's important to note how spectacular the design and direction of this film is, the art and craft that carved a 16th century village out of 20th century locations. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, once past the initial reel the image settles into its earthy palette, tending ever-so-slightly toward red, with little or no defects. Grain, especially in candlelit interiors, is present but minimal and I noted no artificial enhancement whatsover. This transfer appears to have been restored by Fox Lorber, unlike their original release in 1999.

When I first saw this film in the theater nearly 20 years ago, I had not realized that I was catching it in its first run; the print seemed to have been through the wars and looked so bad I thought it must be 20 years old, back then. It has now been transformed into a visual treat for long-suffering fans.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The French 2.0 monaural track is uneventful. Dialogue is clear if not crisp, and sound is relatively even throughout. Not at all remarkable, but satisfactory.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 9 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Oddly, there are 30 chapter stops available via the remote, but only 9 accessible from the onscreen menu. Very odd.

My French amounts to next to nothing, so much gets past me in the subtitling; however, I noted the village of Tilh (or Thil) misspelled as "Tihl," and worse, there is no translation for the last line, which I believe is "Their spirit did not die." (I promise this is not a spoiler, it refers generally to Protestants.)

From the main menu, there is a link to DVD production credits, one to turn the English subtitles on or off, an awards link that notes the single Academy nomination for the film and a another that leads to filmographies for Depardieu, Baye and director Vigne.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

How do we know who we know? What is it that defines who we are? The Return of Martin Guerre is a contorted tale conveyed believably in every aspect of its production. A true story of romance, religion, family and strangers that presents its tragedy so quietly you'll want to "rewind" and watch it again. A must for history, law and Depardieu fans.


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