When cinematographers direct their first films, arresting imagery is to be expected. But even by those standards, what Yves Angelo has accomplished in "Colonel Chabert" is especially impressive.
Working here with director of photography Bernard Lutic, Angelo reveals the same gift for glowing visuals both intimate and panoramic he displayed in shooting "Tout Les Matins du Monde," "Un Coeur en Hiver," "The Accompanist" and "Germinal."
Set in the early 19th Century, "Colonel Chabert's" visual centerpiece is its re-creation of 1807's Battle of Eylau, one of Napoleon's costliest triumphs. The scenes of the French cavalry charge, the subsequent hand-to-hand combat, and especially the wrenching but beautiful sequence depicting the collection of swords, helmets, coats and the like from the bodies of the dead that opens the film all make up the best treatment of this kind of material since Orson Welles' benchmark "Falstaff."
But--and this is unusual for a former cinematographer--Angelo is as interested in the interior life of his people as in their appearance. Working here with co-screenwriter Jean Cosmos, Angelo was not surprisingly drawn to the Balzac story that "Colonel Chabert" is based on. For no writer has a greater zest for psychological acuity, for character as revealed in melodramatic crisis, than the great French novelist.
"Chabert" proper begins 10 years after Eylau, in the busy (and beautifully mounted) Paris office of Derville (Fabrice Luchini), a wizardly lawyer who neither sleeps nor loses cases. A strange and distant man (Gerard Depardieu) has been showing up at all hours, insisting on a private audience. When it is finally arranged, the man tells the astonished Derville that he is Col. Chabert, one of Napoleon's favorites, thought killed at Eylau but now returned to a semblance of life. "I'd like not to be me," he says somberly, "but here I am."
What Chabert wants is to recover his property from his formidable former wife (Fanny Ardant), now the Countess Ferraud. Believing him dead, she increased the fortune she inherited from him and married the upwardly mobile Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier) after the post-Napoleonic restoration of the monarchy.
Derville, who is also the Countess' attorney, is intrigued by this tale despite himself. Is this man truly Chabert or a deluded impostor? And what effect will his reappearance have on the Countess' marriage, potentially shaky because her Napoleonic past is getting in the way of her husband's ambitions?
Director Angelo has brought an elegant and precise style to the working out of this dramatic situation that nicely counterpoints the great passions involved. He has paid attention to everything, including the beauty of the spoken French and the creation of handsome physical settings for characters who worship wealth and possessions.
A former classical pianist, Angelo has also chosen the film's musical selections from Beethoven, Mozart, Scarlatti, Schumann and Schubert with more than usual care, and gotten seamless performances from his fine actors and even seen to it that his narrative has a subtle and haunting finale. If there's any more a debut film could accomplish, it's hard to think what it might be.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It examines mature themes and includes scenes of the carnage of battle.
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Gerard Depardieu: Chabert Fanny Ardant: Countess Ferraud Fabrice Luchini: Derville Andre Dussollier: Count Ferraud Released by October Films. Director Yves Angelo. Producer Jean-Louis Livi. Executive producer Bernard Marescot. Screenplay Jean Cosmos and Yves Angelo, based on the novel by Honore de Balzac. Cinematographer Bernard Lutic. Editor Thierry Derocles. Costumes Franca Squarciapino. Set design Bernard Vezat. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
* In limited release at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.