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'Guerre' Returns Again and Again

February 11, 1993|RANDY LEWIS

"The Return of Martin Guerre" is the riveting true story of a man who returns to his hometown years after deserting his wife and child, only to become the center of an is-he-or-isn't-he-who-he-says-he-is debate.

Sound familiar? It should--it's the same tale being retold in the current big-budget Hollywood version, "Sommersby."

The critically acclaimed 1982 French film stars Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye in the roles that Richard Gere and Jodie Foster handle in "Sommersby." "The Return of Martin Guerre" points up characteristic differences between European and American filmmaking.

Take the casting: "Martin Guerre" director Daniel Vigne casts leading actors who aren't drop-dead good-looking. If the producers of "Sommersby" had been completely honest about the raison d'etre for their remake, they'd have titled it "The Return of Richard Gere."

Let's face it: If Gere showed up on the average American woman's doorstep claiming to be her long-lost husband, how many would run a fingerprint check before handing over the keys?

In "Martin Guerre," Depardieu takes his place with his family because of the man he appears to have become during his absence, not because any woman would swoon at the mere sight of him. Before, he was a lazy worker, selfish lover, immature father and inconsiderate husband; once back, he's giving, dedicated and immeasurably more sensitive.

Vigne's film is at once a mystery (Is Martin who he claims to be?), a romance (as Martin and Bertrand's love blooms) and a morality play (How is truth discovered, and who is served when it is?). Vigne also makes the daily struggle of life on a farm in 16th-Century France as grittily genuine as the uncompromising resolution of this fascinating real-life fable.

Be advised: If you're hankering to find out for yourself how "The Return of Martin Guerre" stacks up against "Sommersby," it might not be easy. The movie is tough to find on video. The only copy I could locate (in badly dubbed English rather than French with subtitles) was at 4 Star Video in Irvine.

"The Return of Martin Guerre" (1982), directed by Daniel Vigne. 111 minutes. Not rated.

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