The time is the mid-sixteenth century in France, and one village farmer's wife, Bertrande de Rois (Nathalie Baye), is being quizzed by the authorities. They wish to know about her marriage, so she relates the tale beginning from her wedding night to Martin Guerre, who after the locals had been indulged with their ceremonies and traditions and left the couple to it, turned over away from his new wife and went to sleep. So began a few years of unhappy wedlock where Martin barely paid any attention to Bertrande, aside from one son to prove something had happened. And then he disappeared...
The Return of Martin Guerre won quite a bit of acclaim down the years, though opinions were split between deciding it was a near-masterpiece or that it was a middlebrow exercise more interested in fashioning a convincing post-medieval backdrop and costumes for its actors. That said, it is strange that the film would be criticised for its visual authenticity, which was very impressive and truly planted the viewer in the historical setting, one of the finest examples of its type. What everyone agreed on were the performances of both Baye and her leading man were the work's strongest suit.
That leading man being who else but Gérard Depardieu during the phase in his career where it was impossible to visit any cinema showing French films and not encounter one of his efforts: no matter how much larger he got physically, he was never bigger in fame terms than he was at the time of this and its contemporaries and that is something he managed to sustain even if his talent's inspiration began to wane to some extent. Here he took the title role as the Martin who did the returning - or did he? The whole conceit of what was a true story, here rather embellished to bring out the themes, was that the man who has been away for the best part of a decade may not be who he said he was.
This Martin is certainly convincing, as he seems to remember everyone, just about, and the lapses in that memory can be excused by the passage of time. What cannot be excused are little details such as physical differences: the cobbler notes that Martin's feet appear to have shrunk, which surely cannot be the case if he is who he says he is. Then again, Bertrande is delighted to have him back and sees nothing wrong in accepting his tale, especially as he has come back a warmer, kinder and more considerate man than he was when he left. So the question now arises whether it really matters if this Martin Guerre is the true Martin Guerre when he slots into his life so easily?
The farm has never been better, Bertrande has never felt more loved, he's more popular than he ever was... but there's his uncle Pierre (Maurice Barrier) who remains to be convinced, particularly when it seems the returner is after his fortune to which he miserly clings. Therefore a trial is in order, and the film develops into a courtroom drama with witnesses from both sides presenting convincing evidence, leaving the one item of proof the only one nobody has. Or do they? In France this has become a folk tale of sorts, though it was well enough documented back in the 1500s due to its oddity, so if you know the outcome the film may not be quite as compelling if you did not. However, it does throw up interesting conundrums about identity and the worth and consequences of actually being, as Kurt Vonnegut may have observed, who you pretend to be. If it does rather descend into "Oh yes I am!"/"Oh no you aren't!" arguments, Depardieu's heartfelt pleas and Baye's cruelly thwarted late blossoming offer quite some substance. Authentic-sounding music by Michel Portal.