Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre) (1982)




Director:     Daniel Vigne.

Starring:     Gťrard Depardieu (Arnaud de Tihl), Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (Martin Guerre). Nathalie Baye (Bertrande de Rols), Roger Planchon (Jean de Coras), Maurice Jacquemont (Judge Rieux), Isabelle Sadoyan (Catherine Boere), Rose Thiťry (Raimonde de Rols), Maurice Barrier (Uncle Pierre Guerre), Stťphane Peau (Young Martin), Sylvie Mťda (Young Bertrande)

A fascinating film about Medieval France.


Spoiler warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

A man on a horse comes to a village. His name is Jean de Coras of the Toulouse Parliament.

Flashback.  It is St. Michaelís Sunday, church of Artigat. They receive Bertrande de Rols, daughter of the late Laurent de Rols and his wife Raimonde. They also receive Martin Guerre, who wants to make Bertrande his wife.

Back to the present.  The story here is a true one. It began in August of 1542 in the reign of Francis I. The dowry is detailed and agreed to. The priest blesses the couple in bed. When everyone leaves, Martin just lays down in the bed.

Bertrande testifies before Jean de Coras.  She says that at first her husband could not consummate the marriage. She says it was because of a spell cast upon him. So her mother wanted the marriage dissolved, even though Bertrande did not agree. They had no children and the entire village made fun of Martin.

The curse happened on Candlemas Day. Martin played the part of a bear. Pretend hunters attack him and cut off what looks like his balls. Then the people come and chant at Martinís house: "If youíre tried of sleeping at night, change husbands!" Martin become sick and a woman says that a spell was put on him. She says she will take the spell off him. With the couple tied to a post, the priest flays them with some large leaves.

Jean de Coras, of the Toulouse Parliament, is put in charge of the matter. Bertrande tells him that one ritual worked and they had a son named Sanxi. But Martin took no interest in his son. He didnít like farming and he kept to himself.

One day Martin was late in bringing back water for those working in the fields. They chide him for this. Martin explains that he spoke with some soldiers down by the stream. His father accuses Martin of stealing two sacks of grain. Dad starts roughing Martin up as he scolds him. That was the night that Martin left.

Bertrande thought that Martin would soon return. His father waited for him everyday for months, but he never came. His father died, killed by sorrow. His mother died a year later. Bertrandeís mother married Pierre Guerre, Martinís uncle, so the two farms could be kept together.

Martin stayed away for eight or nine winters. She never heard from him. Bertrande says in his absence she remained chaste. But one season Martin just showed up. The farmers could not believe it was Martin. A young boy runs through the village shouting that Martin Guerre is home again. He tells Guillemette that her brother Martin is back. Bertrande is behind her and finds it hard to believe that her husband has returned. Everyone runs to see Martin, but Bertrande stays back.

The villagers seem happy to have him back. He greets Guillemette and his other sister Jeanne. Next he approaches Sanxi, his son. They hug. His mother-in-law asks Martin if he has changed for the better for her daughter has suffered a great deal in his absence.

Martin finally asks where is Bertrande. They all accompany him down to the washhouse. Martin goes in and tells Bertrande that it is he, Martin, but she looks very skeptical. She finally comes forward, kneels before him and says hello. He says that his wife is beautiful. Father, son and mother are all now reunited.

It is said that he was in the army in Picardy. Martin sits down to eat surrounded by men and women of the village all watching him. He brought Bertrande some cloth from Flanders with lace. Martin says he learned to read and write while with the army.

His mother-in-law wants to know what did he do all the time he was gone? He says he fought in the war, even going to Spain. He tells the people about Paris where, he says, he got lost. The village wants to have a celebration for his homecoming. There is some music and the women start dancing around in circles. The villagers like this Martin much better than the old one.

Martin and Bertrande go up to bed. He wants to have sex with her, but she backs up when he approaches. But then she hugs him and they kiss.

Jean de Coras asks Bertrande if everyone recognize and accepted Martin? Yes. And did Bertrande? She says yes. They ask her to continue with her story. Martin went right to work and they had two children. One died, but the 18 month old girl is still alive. Bertrande says things were better than before. Martin was a hard worker. And her relationship with Martin was good.

Jean de Coras then asks her when did she first have doubts about her husband? One day some vagabonds stayed at the farm. One of them said that he knew this Martin Guerre. At the battle of St. Quentin he lost a leg. The man goes on to say that the imposter is really a man named Pansette from the village of Tihl

Martin is busy telling his tall tales to the extended family. He talks about the natives of Brazil and wows his audience. Martin and Bertrande go out for a walk. She wants to turn back, saying she is afraid the spirits will be out. Two of the vagabonds had followed the couple and now they call Martin "Pansette" and fight with Martin. Martin bests them, so they run away.

The villagers and Martinís family even discuss the rumors flying around about Martin and Pansette. His uncle tells them not to listen to strangers and rogues. But it looks like even uncle has his doubts.

Martin approaches his uncle about getting some of the money his land made in profit over the eight of nine years he was gone. He says he needs the money, which he thinks amounts to 6,000 livres. Uncle is furious with Martin. He says it was he who raised his son and protected his wife all that time Martin was away. Martin says the law is on his side and he will go to the courts if he has to. Uncle accuses him of squandering their property. He warns this Martin or "not Martin" that he wonít get away with this! Martin throws uncle to the ground and others have to pile on Martin to stop the fight.

The priest tells Bertrande that if Martin is not Martin, then she has been living in mortal sin for the past three years. She would be damning her soul and would follow this Martin into the depths of Hell. Uncle now asks the villagers if they might have made a mistake. He warns the others that Martin will take their farm land too and then go away again. Bertrande canít stand the talk and walks away from uncle.

Uncle confers with Martin saying he will give him the money because he doesnít want any trouble. He also says to Martin that his father hid money up in the hayloft above the stable. He will meet Martin there in the morning to settle up the money.

Uncle meets Martin in the hayloft. Out from the hay pop his two sons and the three of them keep hitting Martin with the wooden part of their scythes. Bertrande runs to protect Martin. Uncle is about to kill Martin when Bertrande throws herself over his body.

Jean de Coras says she risked her own life to save that of her husbandís, but when uncle took Martin to court, Bertrande didnít say anything. She replies that she did have her doubts, but not any more. He is her husband.

Jean de Coras now goes to talk with Martin. He is being kept with his hands tied together as a virtual prisoner. Jean de Coras splits the villagers into three groups: those who say Martin is not Martin, those who donít know and those who say Martin is Martin. The community is badly divided over the three ways.

Jean de Coras now makes his decision. He says there is no proof that this Martin is not the real Martin and the charge against him is dismissed. And his uncle is to pay to Martin and the King 500 livres for calumny. Martin is freed.

Uncle, the priest and others burst into Martinís house and arrest him. They are taking him to Toulouse. Things have changed, says uncle. Two soldiers escort Martin to Toulouse.

Jean de Coras says now his wife has signed that Martin is not Martin. Martin says that she was forced to sign. He adds that Uncle and her cousins frightened her with death threats. The judge takes Martin to see men who know him. They say his name is Arnaud, but they call him Pansette. They are all from the same village of Tihl. Martin says that his uncle used his influence to have these two men say he is not Martin. The Judge isnít buying it.

Different witnesses says heís is Martin and other say he isnít. Bertrande says Martin is her husband. Jean de Coras asks her why she signed with her mark. She says she didnít. Her uncle says she did. Bertrande now shows the Judge how she can write her name.

Bertrandeís mother asks her if she is trying to ruin them? If it were not for Bertrande, this imposter would have been hanged long ago. Bertrande says she knows that Martin is her husband.

Martin puts on a good defense with his witnesses before the judges. When court reconvenes the prosecution takes a different stance. Martin is possessed by the demon. The priest of his village even suggests that Martin may be the devil himself.

Now Jean de Coras questions Bertrande. She again says that Martin is her husband. The judges retire to deliberate the case. Bertrande is all smiles.

The judges start to give their evidence, but a last witness wants to testify. Itís none other than Martin Guerre with his peg leg. The other Martin keeps shouting for them to arrest this hired liar, but it doesnít get him anywhere. So the accused fake Martin asks that he be given a chance to question the peg leg Martin.

Martin does a good job but trips himself up and is exposed. And his sister Jeanne says the peg leg Martin is her brother. Bernadette says that the peg leg Martin is her husband. And now the accused admits that he is not the true Martin. He confesses that he learned everything he could about Martin. But, he says, there was no magic in what he did. He asks the villagers for their forgiveness and for Bertrande to forgive him.

Jean de Coras goes to see Bertrande in her village. He tells her: "You have dared much and feared God very little." He says they acquitted her and made her daughterís birth legitimate. He asks if she knew the imposter was really an imposter. She says yes.

A gallows is constructed. Arnaud walks past the villagers on his way to be hanged. He shouts for God to forgive him. He has to walk backwards up a ladder. The noose is secured and Arnaud is knocked off the ladder and hangs. The gallows and Arnaud are then burned.

Jean de Coras made a record of the case of the false Martin Guerre. "Twelve years later came the St. Bartholomew Massacre. For his Protestant beliefs, Jean de Coras was hung before the Toulouse Parliament with a hundred of his friends."


Spoiler warning.  Good movie.  It is interesting how some humans can lie through their teeth and never feel guilty about it.  There must be a trace of being a psychopath in the minds of these people.  How else could a pathological liar remain so calm?  They say psychopaths can fool the lie detector experts.  The real Martin Guerre may not have liked farming, his wife and children, but Arnaud certainly thought it an attractive life. So he assumes the identity of Martin Guerre and steps right into the man's abandoned  life.  Both Gťrard Depardieu (as Arnaud de Tihl and Martin) and Nathalie Baye (as Bertrande) were very good in their roles. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


he Hundred Year's War between England and France (1337-1453)

See The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)



Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)