Set in 1817 during the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, Colonel Chabert is about a legendary soldier presumed dead who returns home to discover that life has proceeded without him, then struggles to reclaim his identity, causing intense emotional disruptions all around him.
The title character is played by the most physically monumental French actor alive, Gerard Depardieu, who did the "Is He Or Isn't He?" thing in 1983's The Return of Martin Guerre. He shows up at the offices of a well-connected Paris lawyer named Denville (Fabrice Luchini) five times seeking an appointment. Each time the clerks turn him away, assuming that anyone who claims to be a French war hero long written off as deceased must be crazy.
Through sheer persistence, Colonel Chabert finally gets to tell Denville his story: after sustaining serious wounds, he was erroneously pronounced dead by a Prussian doctor who didn't bother to check his heartbeat, then spent a decade hiding in different villages behind enemy lines. He returned home to find that his wife (Fanny Ardant) had married the ambitious Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier), a state counselor who aspires to become one of the most influential officeholders in the nation.
Besides Colonel Chabert's heartbreak (which he makes game attempts to hide), there's a more concrete problem. After the soldier's presumed death, his former wife inherited all of the Colonel's considerable fortune, and when she remarried, that fortune became the property of her new husband. Chabert wants that money back, and he can only get it by proving he is who he says he is, then wrangling with his wife for the right to reclaim it. The prospect appeals to Denville, who brags of having never lost a case--and whose dispassionate surface hides a master manipulator who secretly loves disrupting and rearranging the lives of his clients and their enemies.
It's a juicy setup for a melodrama, full of tangled jealousies and resentments, with plenty of opportunity for nasty, revelatory confrontations. But in this director's hands, the film never quite comes to life. I'll hazard a guess as to why. Both Jean Cosmos' screen adaptation and Yves Angelo's direction seem determined to replicate, almost word for word, key passages from Balzac's classic novel, with as little cinematic interference as possible. What this means for the viewers is scene after endless scene of actors loitering in rooms while they deliver torturously complicated monologues, then following them up with even longer explanations of why they're important, while the camera moves as minimally as possible. It's almost like watching a stage play; in some scenes, characters even make grand entrances and exits, so that you expect a curtain to rise or fall in accompaniment.
There's one very cinematic exception to this general rule--Colonel Chabert's flashbacks to his war experience. They're done in a mixture of tight closeups and sweeping panoramic shots. The way the dead bodies, mangled horses, wagons, cannons, and other bits of military detritus are photographed by cinematographer Bernard Lutic--who bathes the sequences in harsh blue wintry light that suggests a giant outdoor morgue--implies horrors so monstrous and psychically scarring that even Chabert himself can't do them justice.
Aside from those scenes, and a handful of others, the film is crushingly literal. It's a spare, cold movie, and the articulation of its deeply buried emotions is wholly dependent on the skill of its actors. They're called upon to suggest, through facial expressions and vocal inflections, intensely visceral experiences that took place on battlefields and in civilian life--experiences a more emotionally direct movie might approach head-on, by simply showing us, in straightforward flashback, the thing being talked about.
But while the actors are very skillful, and appear to be giving the filmmaker exactly what he wants (especially the hulking, sad-eyed Depardieu, who's so charismatic that he could sit cross-legged on the floor eating a basket of baguettes for two hours and still be riveting), it's somehow not enough. The cast has been directed to play their characters very close to their vests--to tantalize us with fleeting glimpses of their gut feelings, and to contrast the way they'd like to feel about the issues swirling around them with the way they really feel deep down. So what you have is an emotionally reticent movie about emotionally reticent people, staged and shot in a visually dull way that intentionally denies us the big emotions we attend movies in order to experience--a melodrama without melodrama.
Like his alter-ego character, the lawyer Denville, Balzac was a master puppeteer, a spiritual cousin of Gustav Flaubert, who often displayed more interest in the mechanics of storytelling--how physical details, subplots, symbolism, and sociology collided--than in what his characters were feeling as their lives fell apart. Because puppeteer novelists can only feel so deeply for their characters, when they push for big, messy emotions, the results often feel faked. (That's why T. Coraghessan Boyle, a contemporary American writer who works in this mode, could never pull off a legitimate, soapy tearjerker--because behind the sobs of his unfortunate characters, you'd always hear the storyteller snickering.)
But for all his elaborate social theorizing, I can't imagine that Balzac would have endorsed what Yves Angelo has done here. When a storyteller has high sociopolitical aims, as Balzac did, melodrama is a crucial tool to maintain reader interest--the mortar that holds the writer's fictional structure together. Remove it, and the work can collapse at the faintest touch.
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On a very basic level, some of Balzac's thematic concerns come through. One is that in post-Napoleonic France, the tyranny of money created just as many problems as the tyranny of royalty. Another is the irony that in a bureaucratic world that views human lives as mere files in a cabinet and treats death as just one more form to be filled out, even a living, breathing, walking, talking body can't disprove the opinions of the state.
But flash cards would have communicated such points just as easily. Art should provide more than simple information; in the best of all worlds, it should make us feel and dream, not just think. If the director was worried that too much feeling would cheapen the Big Issues presented in the novel, and that by approaching this subject matter as quietly and coolly as possible he could better lead us to enlightenment, he was wrong; after all, how can we care about what events mean, on a cosmic scale, when we don't care about the people they're happening to?
Colonel Chabert spends a good deal of time proving that its title character isn't a ghost. But sadly, because the film is so cold, when it was over, I still wasn't sure.
Colonel Chabert. October Films. Gerard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant, Fabrice Luchini. Directed by Yves Angelo. Written by Jean Cosmos and Yves Angelo. Opens March 3. Not rated; 110 minutes.