Re­turn of the Hero

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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