Acclaimed French cinematographer Yves Angelo ("Germinal,""Tous Les Matins du monde") makes a self-assured and uncommonly satisfying directorial debut with "Colonel Chabert," a fascinating period drama that boasts the star power of Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant and literary pedigree of Balzac.

Acclaimed French cinematographer Yves Angelo (“Germinal,””Tous Les Matins du monde”) makes a self-assured and uncommonly satisfying directorial debut with “Colonel Chabert,” a fascinating period drama that boasts the star power of Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant and literary pedigree of Balzac. It’s a winning combination that should help U.S. distrib October Films score a critical and commercial hit on the arthouse circuit when pic begins platform release at year’s end.

Angelo boldly establishes his command of the medium in drama’s mesmerizing opening sequence, a haunting depiction of the sorting out of fatalities after the 1807 Battle of Eylau. The soundtrack swells with the mournful second movement of Beethoven’s Trio in D Major, Op. 70 (the “Ghost” trio) — the only sound heard during the otherwise silent sequence — while bodies are stripped of uniforms and valuables and prepared for mass burial. But in that group of nameless, faceless dead lies a man who is still alive, if just barely.

Trouble is, it takes Colonel Chabert (Depardieu) a decade to recover and make his way back to Paris. When he returns, he finds he is officially listed as dead. His “widow” (Ardant) has claimed his fortune and taken a new husband, the politically ambitious Count Ferraud (Andre Dussollier). Not surprisingly, Countess Ferraud — who has two children by her second spouse — refuses to acknowledge the disheveled and wild-eyed stranger as her late husband.

The source material is Balzac’s classic novel, but the mood is deliciously Dickensian in the law office where Chabert goes to file a lawsuit to regain his name, wife and fortune. His case is accepted by Derville (Fabrice Luchini), a brilliant and much-admired lawyer who could teach modern-day attorneys a thing or two about the fine art of legal hardball.

It may be difficult to imagine anyone stealing a pic from Depardieu and Ardant, but Luchini comes impressively close to such grand larceny with his stylish, sharp-witted portrayal of Derville.[ October would do well to consider a campaign for a best supporting actor nomination in the Oscar sweepstakes. ]

But Depardieu is the one who ultimately dominates “Colonel Chabert.” His performance and the pic itself may remind many of another case of dubious identity, “The Return of Martin Guerre.” But Depardieu, looking appreciably trimmer than he has in quite some time, does not attempt to repeat his earlier triumph. His work here is a fresh, carefully calibrated mix of enigmatic brooding, volcanic rage and obsessive cunning.

Ardant is equally effective as Countess Ferraud, a woman who has risen from squalid beginnings by thoroughly reinventing herself.

Ardant and Depardieu (reunited onscreen for the first time since Francois Truffaut’s second-to-last feature, 1981′s “The Woman Next Door”) develop an emotionally diverse give and take that is rich with anger, irony and ambiguity. A scene in which Derville vainly attempts to get the couple to agree to an out-of-court settlement is only the most obvious of several scenes that resound with a provocative contemporary relevance.

Except for the stunning opening and a few briefly glimpsed battlefield panoramas, Angelo keeps the action up-close and personal. Some auds may find the early scenes excessively talky. But many more ticketbuyers will appreciate Angelo’s willingness to emphasize the harsh poetry he and co-screenwriters Jean Cosmos and Veronique Lagrange have adapted from Balzac.

As Count Ferraud, Dussollier has relatively few scenes, but he makes the absolute most of his character’s ambiguities. Other supporting players, including budding French star Romane Bohringer (“The Accompanist”) in a cameo bit as a maid, are excellent.

Technically, “Colonel Chabert” is outstanding across the board. Bernard Lutic’s cinematography, Franca Squarciapino’s costumes and Bernard Vezat’s art direction vividly enhance the period flavor. The musical score consists entirely of classic selections aptly chosen by Angelo. Expect strong sales for a soundtrack album.

Colonel Chabert

French

Production

October Films (U.S.) release of a Film Par Film production. Produced by Jean-Louis Livi. Executive producer, Bernard Marescot. Directed by Yves Angelo. Screenplay, Jean Cosmos, Veronique Lagrange, Angelo, based on the novel by Honore de Balzac.

Crew

Camera (color), Bernard Lutic; editor, Thiery Derocles; art direction, Bernard Vezat; costumes, Franca Squarciapino; sound (Dolby), Pierre Gamet; assistant director, Frederic Blum. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 9, 1994. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Chabert - Gerard Depardieu
Countess Ferraud - Fanny Ardant
Derville - Fabrice Luchini
Count Ferraud - Andre Dussollier
Boucard - Daniel Prevost
Hure - Olivier Saladin
Godeschal - Maxime Leroux
Desroches - Eric Elmosnino
Simonnin - Guillaume Romain
Boutin - Patrick Bordier
Chamblin - Claude Rich
With: Jean Cosmos, Jacky Nercessian, Albert Delpy, Marc Maidenberg, Romane Bohringer, Valerie Bettencourt, Florence Guerfy, Julie Depardieu, Isabelle Wolfe.

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