Gerard Depardieu may well be the greatest actor in the world, but you can't blame American moviegoers for doubting the veracity of that claim if their only familiarity with Depardieu's work stems from his three strikes at cross-Atlantic stardom: Green Card (1990), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), and My Father, the Hero (1994). Evaluating Depardieu based on that lightweight trio is like judging Brando from his throwaway scenes in Superman. The hulking French thespian with the most recognizable bulb nose this side of Karl Malden's returns to peak form, however, in his latest picture, a haunting adaption of Balzac's Colonel Chabert. In fact the film is an excellent bargain for those who wish to see what Depardieu can do with material worthy of his talent; Chabert combines elements from two of the actor's finest performances -- the peasant (or is he an impostor?) who reappears after a seven-year absence in The Return of Martin Guerre, and the love-struck swordsman-hero of Cyrano de Bergerac.
The year is 1817. Napoleon's empire has collapsed and Louis XVIII has reclaimed the throne. Money has replaced aristocratic birth, race, or patrimony as the primary measure of a man's worth. A disheveled wreck of a fellow with a baleful gaze partially obscured by the brim of a large tattered black hat arrives at the office of a powerful attorney named Derville for an urgent appointment A at 1:00 a.m.
The sad sack in the black chapeau claims to be Colonel Chabert, a decorated war hero who, according to official records, died ten years earlier leading the cavalry into battle at Eylau (a clash with the Russians that cost Napoleon 10,000 troops). Derville's face is a mask of professional skepticism as "Chabert" makes this outlandish claim, but something in the man's forlorn slouch and world-weary voice persuades the attorney to hear him out.
While spearheading the charge that would seal Napoleon's victory, the colonel sustained a gash on his head, tumbled from his horse, and lapsed into a coma. The camera stays on Chabert (Depardieu) throughout this entire monologue, with no reaction shots from Fabrice Luchini (who plays Derville as a gleefully ruthless advocate) to reinforce the harrowing impact of the resurrected colonel's words. Depardieu radiates grief and wonderment at his own miraculous survival as he describes the horror of being tossed onto a pile of freezing bodies in a mass grave -- near suffocation, a cacophony of cracking bones, grinding teeth, and anguished death-wails that faded into the echoes of the tiniest sighs as the mortally wounded breathed their last.
"Death is red, then blue," he ruefully recalls. "But above all it is silent."
By the time Colonel Chabert explains the reason for his visit, both Derville and the audience are eating out of his hand. After ten years of flight, poverty, and hunger in exile, ten years of begging and being passed from one mental hospital to another, the colonel finally has made it back to Paris to reclaim his pre-war title, rank, and fortune. And, of course, his beautiful wife (Fanny Ardant, bewitching as ever), who happens to be a client (and possibly a former lover) of Derville's; she married the ambitious Count Ferraud shortly after receiving official notice of her first husband's death.
So moved is Derville by the melancholy stranger's story that he not only accepts Chabert as a client, he stakes the displaced colonel to a generous daily allowance out of his own pocket. "Even if I lose my money, I won't mind," he reasons. "I'll have seen the most skillful actor of our time." (Is that Derville talking about Chabert, or director Yves Angelo paying homage to Depardieu?)
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Depardieu delivers Chabert's extended monologue flawlessly. Here stands a man who, after nearly dying in a Napoleonic campaign and enduring a decade of suffering and humiliation, may soon resume a life of great wealth, honor, and privilege. Yet he feels no joy, no hope. The actor evokes the essence of a man who has seen too much, a man who knows the dark side of human nature only too well. Chabert still loves his wife, but he suspects that love will not be reciprocated (a suspicion that is confirmed when they meet in Derville's office and Countess Ferraud's only interest is in how much money it will take to convince the colonel to disappear again).
"What more can the unfortunate do?" the war hero helplessly asks Derville. "They love and that's all."
Love and money: two timeless themes. Angelo fingers the epoch immediately following Napoleon's reign as the time when gold definitively supplanted morals and spirituality in French society, and his movie builds a case that would have done Derville proud. When the lawyer takes Chabert as a client, we know how strongly Derville believes in the colonel's story because the attorney gives him financial support. Count Ferraud keeps his wife because of her huge fortune. The Countess fears that giving too substantial a part of her wealth back to the man she inherited it from in the first place would prompt the Count to leave her. All of the characters are linked, and the tie that binds is money. Derville, the consummate dealmaker, flourishes because he understands this better than anyone else and uses it to his advantage. Colonel Chabert, the noble romantic, refuses to play the game.
But Gerard Depardieu, the actor, plays the game as well as it's ever been played. Add Colonel Chabert to his trophy case.