COLCOA Review: ‘RETURN OF THE HERO’ is if Howard Hawks adapted Jane Austen’s work as screwball comedy
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
RETURN OF THE HERO (LE RETOUR DU HÉROS)
By now, we’ve seen almost all of our favorite female authors’ classic romantic works turned into fully cinematic, swirling, escapist period pieces. Ang Lee’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY, Joe Wright’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE, William Wyler and Andrea Arnold’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s JANE EYRE are amongst the best. Even high concept spoofs like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES have made their way into the zeitgeist. All these films have influenced how audiences and filmmakers view and interpret other works.
Stéphane Brizé’s A WOMAN’S LIFE (written by Guy de Maupassant) seemed very much a mix of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. It was also not good. But I digress. Filmmakers are free to reinterpret the classic how they like. While co-writer/ director Laurent Tirard and screenwriter Grégoire Vigneron have created something wholly original with RETURN OF THE HERO, their inspiration is clear: What if Howard Hawks adapted Jane Austen’s work as a screwball comedy? And they’ve succeeded.
Elisabeth Beauregard (Mélanie Laurent) has always been a fierce protector of her family, but she’s about to meet her greatest challenge yet: Captain Charles-Gregorie Neuville (Jean Dujardin). Soon after he’s engaged to her younger, more naive sister Pauline (Noémie Merlant), he’s summoned to the frontlines of battle. Pauline writes letter after letter to her fiancée only to get nothing in return. Elisabeth, looking out for her sister who’s fallen deathly ill due to the lovelorn stress, decides to start writing Pauline as the Captain. The war ends, but judgmental Elisabeth fervently believes Neuville will be a no-show. She continues her scheme so Pauline’s attentions and heart can be directed elsewhere – to sweet, shy Nicolas (Christophe Montenez). Three years later, the Captain returns and whips Elisabeth, her family and the entire town into a frenzy.
Tirard’s picture moves at a perfectly snappy rhythm. This is a light-hearted, feel-good romp. Cut by editor Yann Malcor, there’s an undeniable energy here. Mathieu Lamboley’s score provides a symphonic undercurrent, bursting with delight, playfulness and introspective charm. Not only are the comedy beats precisely timed, the narrative itself moves things along so nothing lingers for too long. Though the heroine’s deception is justified, and her family would surely understand if she came clean, Tirard and Vigneron have greater fun in inventing the ways in which her lies and the ensuing shenanigans snowball. And the audience roots for her to get out of things with a clear conscience. Elisabeth’s bluster and frustration combined with Neuville’s spirited, antagonistic charm works magnificently. Their banter, along with the actors’ chemistry, makes their repartee soar. The screwball comedy element is innovative and dodges the genre’s – not to mention the subgenre’s – traditional trappings, thus averting our eyes from noticeable act breaks and inherent narrative predictabilities.
No thread is left dangling and, even better, the magic weaved into this cinematic garment also sparkles because of to the leading casts’ skills. Laurent and Dujardin’s interactions are off-the-charts sensational, evoking a throwback feel of classic cinema akin to William Powell and Myrna Loy (THE THIN MAN), or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (HIS GIRL FRIDAY), or Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (BRINGING UP BABY). Tirard sets the stage for each of his actors to genuinely wow – whether that be through comedic timing (like Neuville unwittingly spitting on a baby passing by, or his awkwardness in selecting a duel pistol), or by emphasizing the script’s broad comedic strokes (like Elisabeth’s temper tantrum meltdown). Dujardin turns in some excellent supporting background work in the scene where Pauline confronts Nicolas’ faux masculinity. All of this helps their smaller, genuine moments to better engage the viewer.
The real heroism on display here is the filmmakers’ renewal of the great screwball comedy.
‘RETURN OF THE HERO (LE RETOUR DU HÉROS )’ played COLCOA on April 26. It currently has no U.S. release date, though I’d hope that changes.