Return of the Hero
The last time most of us saw him, Jean Dujardin didn’t have much to say. He played a silent movie star in The Artist (2011), and it earned him Best Actor at the Academy Awards.
This time, he can’t shut up. In Laurent Tirard’s delightful period comedy, set in the Napoleonic era, Dujardin is Captain Neuville, a dashing, silver-tongued cavalry officer who has just proposed to Pauline (Noémie Merlant), the flibbertigibbet younger daughter of the wealthy Beaugrand family, when orders arrive dispatching him off to war. He promises to write every day but misses that commitment by a clean 100 percent.
With Pauline wasting away from a broken heart complicated by a mild case of pneumonia (Doctor: “It’s up to her. If she had something to live for …”), her sister Elisabeth (Mélanie Laurent) decides to step into the breach. She concocts letters to her sister from the captain pledging his love, describing his wartime derring-do and finally his heroic demise in India (“They are massing for their final assault. If this letter gets through, it will probably be the last you will hear from me.”).
And it is. Until, that is, he turns up three years later. He’s a deserter, a stinking stumblebum in rags. A chance encounter in town with Elisabeth awakens in him an idea for getting back on his feet. He cleans up his act and arrives at the family manor, posing as a war hero, following and wildly embellishing the script of his wartime valor that Elisabeth had spun in her forged letters.
Pauline is by now married with children, but Neuville is welcomed back by the family. The chief entertainment of the rest of the movie consists of the verbal swashbuckling between the tart-tongued Elisabeth, who knows Neuville for the charlatan that he is, and the flamboyant scoundrel. It’s a contest so steeped in acid that you just know they’ll wind up falling for each other.
The story is slight but funny in a way that produces more smiles and chuckles than belly laughs. It’s the work of its two stars, ably supported by the secondary players, that gives this nicely pitched comedy its staying power. Dujardin is awash in charm, but it’s the smart astringency of Laurent that really makes the chemistry sizzle and the fun sustain. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, who shot The Artist, and production designer Françoise Dupertuis (Molière), deliver a handsome visual package. — Jonathan Richards
Atop his trusty steed: Jean Dujardin