A good old fashioned corset comedy with minimal laughs but a decent level of charm, Return of the Hero (Le Retour du heros) pairs two of America’s favorite Frenchies for a drawing room farce about love, valor and duplicity at the start of the 19th century. Oscar winner Jean Dujardin stars opposite Melanie Laurent as a swashbuckling swindler trying to take advantage of the latter’s aristocratic family, resulting in a few funny scenes played out in lavish costumes and eye-popping decors. The result could score well with Gallic audiences, including Dujardin’s local fan base, but it’s not sure whether the humor — or lack of it — will translate outside of Europe or Francophonia.
Directed by Laurent Tirard (Le Petit Nicolas), who co-wrote the script with Gregoire Vigneron, the story begins in 1809 with the suave and courtly Captain Neuville (Dujardin) showing up on horseback at the chateau of the maidenly Elisabeth (Laurent). He’s there to ask her brat of a younger sister, Pauline (Noemie Merlant), to marry him, but just when her parents (Evelyne Buyle, Christian Bujeau) accept the proposal he’s sent off to fight in one of Napoleon’s wars and disappears without a trace. In order to save her sis from heartache, Elisabeth decides to forge letters from Neuville that relate his wartime gallantry and later on, his heroic death in India.
Cut to three years later, with Neuville arriving back in town alive and well, although he’s turned into a drunken lout. Looking for a way to cash in on his engagement, he shows up at Pauline’s as an alleged war hero, only to find she’s married a milquetoast if arrogant nobleman (Christophe Montenez). With nothing to lose and much to gain if he plays his cards right, Neuville crashes the family estate and boasts about his exploits, with only Elisabeth aware that he’s a con artist. But he’s onto her as well, and the rest of film consists of one long cat-and-mouse game that, quelle surprise, will eventually turn into a romance between the two conniving opposites.
That’s not much to build a movie on, and it feels like Tirard is trying awfully hard to raise the stakes on a premise that functions mostly off quid pro quos, with everyone but Elisabeth falling for Neuville’s ruse — despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he acts like a total clown. To Dujardin’s credit, he manages to somewhat downplay his part and actually gives Neuville a necessary dose of pathos in the last act, turning a throwaway farce into something slightly more intriguing about the traumas of war. But it’s not enough to salvage a comedy that offers one or two good jokes amid lots of shouting matches and silly bouts of slapstick.
Laurent also fares decently with such slim material, which can be seen as a throwback to Gallic cape-and-powder comedies from the 1960s or 70s like Philippe de Broca’s Swords of Blood and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Swashbuckler. In terms of craft, Return of the Hero delivers a handsome package, with DP Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist) providing an array of lush widescreen compositions and production designer Francoise Dupertuis (Moliere) using real locations to their fullest. Costume designer Pierre-Jean Larroque has fun with all the bodices and fluffy shirts, in a movie where appearances are meant to deceive and the truth is tucked away behind so many frills.
Production companies: JD Prod, Les Films sur Mesure, Studiocanal, France 3 Cinema, Nexus Factory, Umedia, GV Prod
Cast: Melanie Laurent, Jean Dujardin, Noemie Merlant, Evelyne Buyle, Christian Bujeau, Christophe Montenez
Director: Laurent Tirard
Screenwriters: Laurent Tirard, Gregoire Vigneron
Producers: Marc Dujardin, Olivia Lagache
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Francoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque
Editor: Yann Malcor
Composer: Mathieu Lamboley
Casting director: Julie David