Capitaine Charles-Gregoire Neuville (Jean Dujardin) arrives at the Beaugrand manse to ask for the hand of the beautiful Pauline (Noemie Merlant), who joyously accepts. But, Napoleon is at war with most of Europe and Charles is called to duty, promising to write his beloved every day. Months go by without a word and the frail Pauline falls into despair, threatening her health. Her resourceful sister, Elisabeth (Melanie Laurent), comes up with a plan – write Charles’s never-sent letters herself, and this works quite well until the “Return of the Hero.”
As the film opens, we see the opulence of French aristocracy at the beginning of the 19th Century in all its pomp and circumstance. The gallant Charles, when called to duty, rides off to glory. Then, the true nature of “Return of the Hero” kicks in and, instead of a period drama, we see a witty, cleverly written story with a cast equal to the task of bringing it to life.
At first, as I watched this story of love and deceit, I had the strong feeling that I had seen the story before. “The Return of Martin Guerre” came to mind. Then, I lost myself in the fast-paced, old-fashioned drawing room banter as all the machinations of deception, emotion and hidden love take shape as the protective Elisabeth falls into a morass of her own invention.
While I expected Jean Dujardin to use his handsome, goofy charm to good effect as the ne’er-do-well Charles, Melanie Laurent, as the strong-willed Elisabeth is a surprise of graceful comic timing. She has the best intentions as she begins her letter writing campaign posing as the heroic Charles. When he unexpectedly shows up in the town, destitute and in rags, instead of coming clean, she continues to generate the false persona of her imagined Charles. You can see where this will go. But, then again, maybe not.
Director Laurent Tirard co-wrote the screenplay with Gregoire Vigneron and their collaboration, combined with terrific performances by all and sumptuous production, is funny and clever from start to finish. The chemistry between Dujardin and Laurent begs for another outing for the two. I give it a B+.
In 1809, a brilliantly turned out officer of Napoleon's Army, Captain Charles-Grégoire Neuville (Jean Dujardin), arrives at the French country estate of the Beaugrands (Evelyne Buyle, Christian Bujeau) to ask for the hand of their youngest daughter, Pauline (Noemie Merlant). But before wedding planning can begin, Neuville is ordered to Austria, promising the distraught Pauline to write every day. Older sister Elisabeth (Mélanie Laurent) has pegged Neuville as a philanderer, but when months go by with no word and Pauline's health suffers, she begins penning letters in his name, letters that will put her in a pickle upon the "Return of the Hero."
Cowriter (with Grégoire Vigneron)/director Laurent Tirard's ("Molière") period screwball comedy is like a twist on "Cyrano de Bergerac" with a feminist heroine. Instead of a man wooing his love for another through letters, Elisabeth creates a hero for her sister whom she kills off, then must use her wits when, three years later, Neuville returns bearded, in rags and destitute. Dujardin may be typecast as the conniving, preening 'officer,' a role not too far afield of his "OSS 117" Bond parody, but he's perfect in the role, surprising with a third act dramatic scene which changes our (and Elisabeth's) opinion of the man. Laurent surprises, going toe-to-toe with him with a dive into silliness that keeps this confection frothing.
Elisabeth knows her deceit is a bad idea before she starts, but part of the fun is watching Laurent's barely contained glee as her character's outrageous concocted adventures enrapture audiences gathered in the Beaugrand drawing room. Elisabeth begins to regard herself as an author, Neuville a character of her own creation. By the time she suggests his death in an impossible letter written while facing 2,000 Englishmen, he's shown bravery against impossible odds and accomplished such feats as slaying a tiger.
But three years after his departure as Elisabeth walks through the town markets, she spies a bum being ejected from a carriage with insufficient funds and immediately recognizes him. She ducks too late, Neuville having spied her, and she agrees to not only pay his passage, but enough money for him to leave town and keep his heroic reputation intact. Alas, Neuville thinks better of this and arrives freshly groomed and militarily attired on a white horse at the Beaugrand home where he's embraced and offered lodging.
Elisabeth is frustrated by her every attempt to be rid of him while Pauline, since married to nobleman Nicolas (Christophe Montenez), continually offers him lewd proposals. Monsieur Dunoyer (Laurent Bateau) and Monsieur Loiseau (Jean-Michel Lahmi) offer him huge sums on the hush as investments in his fictional diamond mine, Neuville spinning a pyramid scheme. When Cossacks in the area bring Général Mortier-Duplessis (Féodor Atkine) and his troops, Elisabeth arranges for a reception to out Neuville for once and for all.
Tirard's movie may be a throwback, but it reminds us how much fun this genre can be when done well, its lush production and comedically sparring costars delightful. The film may end up exactly as we expect it to, but it arrives there on a novel path.
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