It sounds like a classic setup for a noir movie; a man comes to town, claiming to be a native son who had left years before to go to war. Is he lying or telling the truth? Some locals believe him, some don’t, and before long his very identity is put on trial.
But “The Return of Martin Guerre” doesn’t takes place in 1950s New York, but in 16th-century rural France. Based on a real-life case that was well-known in French history, the 1982 film version became an international arthouse hit and raised the profile of its star, the then-hunky Gerard Depardieu. Cohen Media has released a stunning 4K restoration of Daniel Vigne’s film that is now out on Blu-ray.
Martin Guerre is a fairly callow young farmboy who marries as a teenager and seems destined for an unremarkable if disreputable life. After he’s caught stealing grain, he abandons his wife and runs off to war. Seven years later, he returns to his village a changed man (literally, since he’s now played by Depardieu), more noble and upstanding, more loving to his wife Bertrand (Nathalie Baye).
But Martin’s uncle makes a stunning claim – that Martin isn’t really Martin at all, but an impostor. The uncle has a somewhat devious practical reason for doubting Martin’s identity – if the man is a fake, then Martin’s father’s land goes to the uncle. But several people, including Bertrand, insist that this is the Martin they remember.
The case eventually goes to trial, and one of the surprising and gratifying things about the film is that it does really turn into a legal thriller, with several big, well-planned surprises making us second-guess and third-guess our assumptions about Depardieu’s character. At least twice while watching the film I was 90 percent sure I knew the real identity, only to have that guess completely overturned by what came next.
The new 4k restoration showcases how much detail and loving care was taken with recreating the look and feel of a 16th-century village. The film’s look was influenced heavily by the Renaissance paintings of Pieter Bruegel, and the deep reds and browns on screen really stand out in the restoration. In a 2016 interview with Baye, the actress says the setting was so convincing that the actors started to feel uncomfortable wearing their modern-day street clothes, and more at ease when they changed into their period costumes. (The film’s one Oscar nomination was for costume design.)
“Martin Guerre” was remade in the United States as “Sommersby,” starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster and relocated to the Civil War South. I also think “Mad Men” pays homage to the film with the whole Don Draper/Dick Whitman revelations. But it more than holds up on its own, especially now that it’s been spruced up.
One note: Whatever you do, do not visit the film’s IMDB page before watching the movie, which baldly gives away the identity of Depardieu’s character.