Capitaine Neuville (Jean Dujardin) seemed too good to be true, certainly to Elisabeth Beaugrand (Mélanie Laurent), whose sister Pauline (Noémie Merlant) he was courting. Nevertheless, she was almost impressed with him when he rode up on horseback one day and asked for Pauline's hand in marriage, less so when one of his soldiers appeared shortly after and informed him he had to leave immediately for the Austrian front, since the Emperor was at war there. The wedding never happened, but then, neither did Neuville get in touch through so much as a letter or postcard, and when this made her emotional sister ill, Elisabeth was forced to take drastic action...
Although Dujardin fell off the radar somewhat after his Best Actor Oscar win for The Artist, in English-speaking countries at least, he continued to be very busy in France, and Return of the Hero, or Le retour du héros as it was known there, was another success for him in his native land and those places which spoke French. It saw him in a comfortable role well within his ability, playing the charmer with a less than noble heart, basically the sort of part he could essay in his sleep, but to his credit he worked at it to render it something worth watching and not something a star could easily coast through. His co-lead Laurent, still best known for Inglourious Basterds, did the same.
She had not made much of a mark internationally away from Quentin Tarantino, and it was perhaps no coincidence both actors made no secret of the fact they were happier to perform in French than in English, Dujardin especially. The fact they were content to be celebrities on home soil and not really seek that anywhere else was laudable when the fame game often proclaimed that conquering the world was the only way to make something of your career, and thanks to their talent there remained those away from France who would recognise their names and be willing to take a chance on one of their projects, largely those who were unbothered about reading subtitles.
This was a hackneyed tale from writer and director Laurent Tirard, who had enjoyed a big hit in France, if not many other regions, with his period farce Molière, and Return of the Hero was in the same mould, only thanks to the bright presences of the two stars, it was perfectly watchable even if the belly laughs were thin on the ground. More amusing than hilarious, when the Capitaine hero does return, he is a down and out and very far from his military bearings, deliberately so for he deserted his post, being a scoundrel and all. To add insult (for Pauline) to injury (for himself), he can barely recall what he was supposed to have meant to his fiancée who wasn't, yet this is not why Elisabeth is sick to the pit of her stomach to see him again, for she has been indulging in subterfuge herself.
When Neuville did not reply to her sister's missives, Elisabeth invented a series of letters pretending to be from him, eventually letting her down kind of gently by saying he had died in battle, though not before penning a final message. It is now 1812 and Pauline has married the meek but nice Nicolas (Christophe Montenez) for want of her "hero", however Elisabeth has blabbed her well-intentioned trickery to Neuville in the hope it will get rid of him, not realising to her horror that this makes him all the keener to hang around. Basic farce business, really, but given an edge by the interplay between Dujardin and Laurent when the heroine is aggrieved she, as a writer, has her character misinterpreted by this performer who misinterprets everything she wanted him to be. If that was a niche concern, then at least it was brought to life by a cast who were thoroughly willing to play this for all it was worth, and only one misstep (the slap) threatened the good humour and serious message about war itself. Music by Mathieu Lamboley.