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Wow.  I just finished watching this 1982, Daniel Vigne-directed movie (which stars a relatively young Gérard Depardieu), and it kind of blew my mind.  Not really what I was expecting from the slow-starting, show-it-to-the-class type of French period film.  The fact that this movie was able to blow me away the way it did probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was totally ignorant of the plot details going in.  It's based on a real historical event that took place in southern France in the 16th century and subsequently became something of a popular myth, and has been inspiring writers and dramatists ever since.  But I didn't know any of that.  I was just like, hmm, here's a movie about some dude named Martin.  Simple, right? Wrong.


 

The story starts out quite simply.  Two youths from farming families in a small village in southern France are married, joining their two estates.  Their names are Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols.  Yet Martin is an introverted, sullen, and unhappy kind of youth, and the marriage is somewhat rocky.  Yet they seem to be overcoming their troubles, especially when Bertrand conceives and gives birth to a son.  And then one day Martin disappears without a word or a trace.  Eight years later, he returns just as suddenly.  Older, more worldly, and seemingly more appreciative of the life he had abandoned, Martin is welcomed back by the village and his family with open arms.  Life goes on, even better and happier than before he left.  But all is not as it seems...
 


 
Even if you're not already familiar with the story of Martin Guerre, you may have already figured out the main twist.  [If you're not and you haven't you may want to stop reading because I'm about to spoil it.]  I can tell you right now that I did not cotton on right away.  I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.  I was right there with the villagers celebrating Martin's seemingly miraculous return.  Over the course of the second half of the film I probably changed my mind about "Martin's" true identity about a dozen times.  The most maddening thing was, I kept asking myself what I would do in the villagers' situation and not being able to answer the question.  And throughout the whole thing, the character of Bertrande keeps you guessing as well.  How much does she know?  How much does she suspect?  How much does she admit to herself that she knows or suspects?  It's enough to drive you mad just watching it; I can't imagine what it must have been to live through it.

And it all builds up to that wonderful, terrible moment in the court at Toulouse, when ultimate victory for "Martin" is finally at hand (if you're like me you're completely rooting for the impostor at this point, or you may have even convinced yourself that he WAS the real deal after all), and then you hear that ominous clunk, clunk, clunk coming down the isle, and you just know what it means.  You know it's the sound of a peg leg and that it's all over.

And then you wonder and marvel at how this history-class sleeper reduced you to this state of mental agitation.


 
 
So, yeah, this movie basically played me for a sucker.  I take my hat off to you, film.  Another remarkable thing about it is the historical realism with which it portrays rural (and later urban) life in 16th century Europe.  My ninth grade history teacher should have shown us this instead of Ivanhoe.  The medieval and renaissance periods are very tricky; they're so often romanticized or stylized in film and fiction, but rarely have I seen them depicted with the kind of accuracy and attention to detail applied in this film.  ( The only other example I can think of would be Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy of novels by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset.)  The story of Martin Guerre is ultimately a fascinating case and character study, especially as it is a true story.  Yet by adding the extra dimension of historical realism, this film manages to make the story all the more relateable, almost unnervingly so.