“Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.” (Derville to Chabert)
Colonel Chabert (Gerard Depardieu), one of Napoleon’s greatest officers is declared dead following the battle of Eylau in 1807. But Chabert is not dead–he survives a severe head wound and after suffering great hardships, he returns to Paris years later only to discover that he has been declared dead, and his wife (Fanny Ardant) is remarried to Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier). Chabert, now in poor health and suffering from memory loss, has lost his wife, his social status, and his fortune amassed under Napoleon.
Chabert seeks legal recompense through the services of the brilliant lawyer, Derville (Fabrice Luchini), but what exactly does Chabert hope to regain? His wife is married to another, his military past, in a France now ruled by the Bourbons, is an embarrassment, and his fortune has disappeared, and only the enigmatic Countess Ferraud holds the key to the missing fortune.
The film, Colonel Chabert is based on the book by Balzac, and as any Balzac fan knows, no other writer delved so intensely into the intricacy of the human soul–Balzac is fascinated with motivation–what drives us to commit illogical or destructive acts. Colonel Chabert is the story of a man who survives numerous atrocities only to discover that everything he longed to return to has simply vanished–even he is a ghost. Chabert’s rage about his lost fortune–the loot and plunder from various military campaigns under Napoleon–serves under to underscore his anachronistic approach to wealth. Loot and plunder are no longer popular under the Bourbons, and the Countess Ferraud has moved on and now stakes her wealth on sugar mills & colonialism. Meanwhile Count Ferraud chases shimmering illusions of rank and power through the peerage, and he pesters his wife for money to indulge his schemes. Chabert wants to regain his fortune and stake it on an ad-hoc military training camp for those who wish to restore the emperor to the throne.
Gerard Depardieu as the shabby, destitute Colonel is magnificent. He is in turns violent, wretched, haunted, and pathetic. Fanny Ardant is in the words of Derville, “superb”–a desperate woman who escaped a brothel but who now fights for her position by keeping a tight rein on the purse strings. But the most fascinating role falls to Fabrice Luchini as the lawyer Derville–Derville is intrigued by the Colonel and his former wife, and in deciding to accept Chabert’s case, he treats it as an exercise in observing human motivation. Ultimately it’s Derville, a rising member of the bourgeoisie who holds the reins of power on the film. One of the most powerful scenes in this film (and there are many) takes place in Derville’s office when he describes the moral atrocities lawyers witness–and participate in every day. Derville’s speech is adapted directly from Balzac’s novel.
Structurally, the film is flawless. The opening sequences of the frozen dead at Eylau are immediately contrasted with the noise and activity of Derville’s office. Chabert sometimes relapses into reveries of his past life, and flashbacks include intimate moments with his wife and then scenes from the Battle of Eylau. One scene, accompanied just by the elegance of Beethoven’s music (Ghost) shows the prelude to the battle as the French cavalry line up for a charge. There’s a certain beautiful grandeur to this, which echoes the empty rhetoric of war–noble sacrifice, adherence to duty and blind courage in the face of death. The film follows the cavalry charge towards the Russians and then records the collision of the cavalry with rifle power. All the elegance and beauty collapses in the face of such bloody, useless carnage–the realities of war. This film includes some of the most magnificent, terrifying and moving battle scenes ever seen on the screen. I have watched this film at least a dozen times, and I am still as fascinated by it as I was the first time I saw it. The director, Yves Angelo, skillfully creates sympathy for both the Colonel and the Countess, and shows that nothing is ever simple, and the complexities of life often cause us to commit acts that are never completely understood. The costumes are marvelous, the acting flawless, but for me, ultimately, it was the story that makes this film–a peerless study in human nature–unforgettable.