This may be heresy, but it seems to me that the Hollywood star vehicle Sommersby is at least the equal of the French art-house fave The Return of Martin Guerre. Granted, the Jodie Foster-Richard Gere remake of the Gérard Depardieu-Nathalie Baye original rings major changes on Guerre’s story line, so comparing them is a kind of pommes-and-oranges thing. But for once a foreign film has been remade in America in a way that deepens its meaning. Unlike such beefy upgrades as The Vanishing (from a Dutch film of that name) and Point of No Return (from La Femme Nikita), Sommersby can be watched on a video double bill with its Euro-original and you won’t feel as if you’re seeing the same tape twice.
A man returns to his small village after many years away at war. To the townsfolk he now seems like a different person — kind where he was surly, educated where he was crude, devoted to the community he once cynically shunned. He’s also a perfect husband to the wife he once ignored. Slowly it becomes clear that he may in fact be a different person, an impostor taking advantage of physical similarity and the frailty of memory. Soon the government has to step in and put the case to the careful, empirical rack of law. But the questions asked by both movies are larger than legal charges. Can good deeds outweigh the fraud of pretending to be somebody you’re not — even if that somebody was a total yutz? More crucially, does a man’s identity lie in his name or in his actions?
There really was a Martin Guerre, and his case came before a Toulouse court in the 16th century. By yoking itself to history, The Return of Martin Guerre finds a tense, dignified strength while remaining commercially accessible. The final scenes are as suspenseful as those of any courtroom thriller, and Gerard Depardieu — he of the soulful eyes and Play-Doh nose — gives Martin an utterly convincing historical charisma.
But director Daniel Vigne shows us there’s more than just a man’s name at stake here. The movie’s re-creation of its era pits Martin’s new ideas against the suspicious conservatism of his village enemies. In one quietly powerful scene, Martin teaches his wife (Nathalie Baye) to write her name, and the look on her face as she connects the inkstrokes with her identity is astonishing — there’s power and freedom and fear, too. This Martin Guerre, coming home as the Renaissance kicks into high gear in France, is a new man in more ways than one.
That’s the one aspect of the story that Sommersby overplays. Set during a similar time of turmoil — rural Tennessee after the Civil War — the remake makes its hero a little too much of a Renaissance man. Not only is the returned Confederate soldier Jack Sommersby (Gere) a better lover to his wife, Laurel (Foster), and father to his son, but he leads his ruined town back to prosperity with newfangled socialist farming techniques and empowers the local black population to boot. At points, the character comes off simply as a Beverly Hills liberal time-slumming in the postbellum South.
What saves Sommersby is its melodramatic intelligence, which is not a paradox: By heightening the central love story yet grounding it in a strong script, writers Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan and director Jon Amiel have devised an entertainment with the sweep of classic Hollywood. And by casting Jodie Foster, whose screen persona is equal parts heart and mind, they make their tale matter for the ’90s. Foster enters a new phase with this movie — she’s intriguingly raw, almost experimental, in her acting style. Yet believable, too: Faced with a good, kind man who may not be her husband, Laurel ricochets between cynical doubt and hope beyond hope.
Even Gere seems alive this time around; he purposely uses his pretty-boy opacity to keep us off balance. Is Jack Sommersby for real or not? The movie catches him in a craftier trap than the one Martin Guerre sets for its lead — arrested on an old charge of murder, Gere’s character will hang if he is Sommersby or be jailed and disgraced if exposed as an impostor. And if he is the latter, then his stubbornness to ‘fess up becomes something nearly existential: a refusal to return to a hated previous self. That’s heady stuff for mainstream movies, and Sommersby daringly follows it through to its logical conclusion. The Return of Martin Guerre ends similarly, but that keeps it squarely within the tradition of European cinema. By rejecting the usual smiley-face Hollywood windup in favor of an ending that actually fits the tale, Sommersby plays like a quiet revolution.
Sommersby: B+; The Return of Martin Guerre: B