Le Colonel Chabert

(Yves Angelo, France, 1994)


Surely one of the most amusing trends in movie distribution and exhibition of the 1990s is the refusal to translate certain French titles. It is not hard to figure out what Le Colonel Chabert or Une pure formalité (1994) mean, but this marketing trick is purely a chic affectation.


These days we see few of the true art films made in France, but almost all the good looking, expensive, historical epics, most of which star Gérard Depardieu. After Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), Germinal (1993) and the Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources duo (1986) comes Le Colonel Chabert. Adapted from a novel by Honoré de Balzac, it marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Yves Angelo (he shot Claude Sautet’s A Heart in Winter [1992], among many others).


I’m one of those cinephiles who tends to cultivate – to the point of blind unfairness, it’s true – a fierce resistance to beacons of middlebrow quality cinema such as the Merchant Ivory movies, or Claude Berri’s lavish adaptations of French literary classics. But Le Colonel Chabert, like The Remains of the Day (1993), is a powerful, beautifully crafted film that rises above the mediocrity of its market-niche type.


Chabert, incarnated magnificently by Depardieu, returns to his milieu ten years after having disappeared in the 1807 Battle of Eylau. Believing him dead, his wife (Fanny Ardant) long ago remarried a Count (André Dussollier, familiar from Alain Resnais’ cinema). Rejected and confused, Chabert seeks justice and personal vindication through legal means.


The synopsis might evoke memories of The Return of Martin Guerre (1982 – remade in USA as Sommersby [1993]), but the drama here is closer to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It is a tale of tortured male pathos, in which Chabert walks among the living like a ghost, shunned by the society that once glorified him.


It is also a tale about the distribution of power in a specific social sphere, and the uneven micro-powers wielded by individuals as they navigate the various contracts of law, marriage and property. The undoubted master in this game is the shifty lawyer Derville, played by Fabrice Luchini (Éric Rohmer caught his prodigious talent young in Claire’s Knee [1970], as did Walerian Borowczyk in Immoral Tales [1973]).


Angelo’s direction is quietly confident, full of telling touches. Again and again, it is the small detail – the off-hand gesture, the prudent cut-away – which transforms an otherwise conventional dialogue scene into something memorable. The stark scenes of bloody battle and aftermath have the tragic tone of Orson WellesChimes at Midnight (1965) or Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974).


The story told by Le Colonel Chabert is not edifying. The mood is unrepentantly gloomy, even bathetic. Like Gillian Armstrong’s version of Little Women (1994), it may prompt some viewers to wonder whether such a story is at all relevant to our time. But, as the sales figures on Helen Garner’s controversial non-fiction book The First Stone: Some Questions about Sex and Power (1995) suggest, tales of old bastards left out in the cold still seem to have a mighty popular appeal.

© Adrian Martin April 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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