Does an “s” make a difference? You be the judge. In French, “Return of the Hero” is about heroes. “Return of the Hero” (Le retour du héros) seems like a routine corset costume romp, but there’s a moment when the devastating truth is revealed and the tragedy of war confronted.
The year is 1809 and the dashing middle-aged Capitaine Charles-Grégoire Neuville (Jean Dujardin, the first French actor to win a Best Actor Oscar for “The Artist”) has just become engaged to the young Pauline (Noémie Merlant) when he is called away to the front. He promises that he will write every day, but he does not.
The impressionable Pauline hysterically falls ill. He is, after all, her first love and there is little news from the war front. She becomes desperately ill with a pneumonia and the doctor warns she will not get better unless she has a will to live.” Pauline and Elisabeth’s parents (Evelyne Buyle and Christian Bujeau) are helplessly anguished.
Her sister Elisabeth resolves on a plan, telling us, “What I did that day, I did for her.” She begins to write letters as Neuville to her sister, filled with romantic notions and warm feelings of affection. Pauline recovers and surprises Elisabeth with the carnal depths of her desire, but Pauline as the captain asks for sweetness of a chaste love.
Unfortunately, the war ends and Pauline expects her true love to return to her. Elisabeth decides that the brave captain must become a member of the secret service and whisks him away to…where else? Asia. While he writes to Pauline he also bids her goodbye and Pauline eventually marries the boring but steady Nicolas (Christophe Montenez)
Yet three years later, the real captain does return and Elisabeth sees him in the village. He is ragged and drunk, stumbling out of a coach to the disgust of the other passengers. Elisabeth attempts to bribe him to go away, but he has another game in mind. He and Elisabeth engage in a game that only he understands the true stakes.
Director Laurent Tirard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gregoire Vigneron, brings a charming romance and a challenge to the concept of what heroes are. Dujardin easily transforms into the hero of both the patriotic illusions and of the con that eventually he and Elisabeth collaborate in, yet he also deftly becomes a man masking a deep painful trauma, what we now call post-traumatic stress but in the past was simplistically called cowardice.
In French with English subtitiles.