I’m not a big fan of French comedies, which tend to be broad and slapsticky to the point of ridiculousness and sometimes offensiveness – don’t forget that this is the country that famously adores Jerry Lewis – but I was tempted by the Le Retour du Héros (Return of the Hero) because it stars Jean Dujardin, who has great comic timing and really made me laugh in his role in the OSS 117 spoof of the James Bond series.
Directed by Laurent Tirard, Le Retour du Héros is set in 1809 in a manor house in a French village. Echoes of Jane Austen spring to mind as the handsome Captain Neuville (Dujardin) proposes to Pauline (Noémie Merlant) one of the two beautiful unmarried daughters, lovely in their Empire dresses, of a well-off family. He then gallops off to war on his white steed, promising to write to his beloved.
The other, brighter daughter, the sharp-tongued Élisabeth (Mélanie Laurent), despises the captain and lets him know it. She is not the least bit surprised when not a single letter arrives from him, plunging her sister into despair and endangering her health.
More echoes of Jane Austen: Élisabeth turns out to be an imaginative writer. To calm her sister, she begins forging letters from the captain to explain his long absence.
I won’t give away any more of the plot, but as the title makes clear, our “hero“ does return and is adored by one and all. Only Élisabeth knows his dark secrets, but all of her attempts to drive him away are in vain.
While the film has some occasionally funny moments, the humor is fairly lame and the plot stretched far too thin.
Dujardin is as charming and appealing as ever, and Mélanie Laurent is excellent as Élisabeth. For some unknown reason, however, the writers have her step entirely out of character at one moment in the movie, when she starts acting like a bratty child, after being presented as a strong woman who states clearly at one point that she has “chosen” not to marry.
Also very fine is Christophe Montenez as Pauline’s other suitor, the shy Nicolas. His character is, unfortunately, the agent of some offensive humor that involves slapping her around.
I saw the film with English subtitles at a Lost in Frenchlation event, and the English-speaking audience was laughing loudly throughout, so it apparently tickles some funnybones. Mine were mostly left untouched.