The period of Honore de Balzac's Colonel Chabert is the second decade of the nineteenth century, when the French bourgeoisie was rising on tides of post-revolutionary democracy, material desire and disillusionment with war. Against this background, the great novelist wrote the tale of a slain hero of the Napoleonic Wars who suddenly materializes in rags, ten years later, to haunt his ambitious wife, the feckless, scheming count (Andre Dussollier) she has married in the interim, and a canny Paris lawyer who glories in betting on both sides of a case.
In the larger sense, Colonel Chabert also haunts France's entire new regime with his quaint ideas of honor and, perhaps, of revenge. Is he a ghost? A madman? Or a powerful force of conscience?
Balzac's ironies and the dramatic possibilities are almost limitless, and former cinematographer Yves Angelo, making an impressive debut as a director, takes full advantage of them. This may be the handsomest and most compelling chapter yet of an ongoing literary revival in French films that has brought us adaptations of Madame Bovary, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Germinal. Cyrano de Bergerac and his nose staged a comeback in 1992, and just a few weeks back, Alexandre Dumas got into the act via a bloody adaptation of Queen Margot.
Colonel Chabert may be the best of these new costume dramas. In the title role, the French colossus Gerard Depardieu has all the power, charm and tragic potential that Balzac's romantic extremist demands, so even his most exaggerated pronouncements ring true. "I was buried under the dead," this regretful survivor booms. "Now they're burying me under the living!" The "living" include the Colonel's wife, Rose (the formidable Fanny Ardant), who has risen from brothel to drawing room on her cunning, and her clever attorney, Derville (Fabrice Luchini), who contrives to take on the resuscitated Colonel's claims as well as Rose's. You'll likely never see a more complex or withering case of lawyer-bashing at the movies. Derville's self-serving manipulations are nothing less than wondrous, even more elaborate than they were in Balzac.
The film's desolate battlefield flashbacks, with their piles of twisted bodies, frozen horses and scattered fires, have another quality. The romantic in Balzac was expressed through flagrantly melodramatic plots and exaggerated characters, but he was also hailed as a founder of realism: The series of novels that make up La Comedie Humaine are a complete, detailed social history of France. Director Angelo's blunt war scenes, which so torture Chabert's memory, serve the gritty side of the author as well as they serve this superb piece of filmmaking.
If you're interested in a banquet of wit, high intrigue and historical fascination, Colonel Chabert serves up all the courses in style.