@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 11 Jan 2019

Jean Dujardin (The Artist) and Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) cross wits and insults in a lavish Gallic farce that plays as a Picasso jumble of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and ‘40s screwball comedy.  A frothy and frantic concoction that won’t lodge in the memory, Return of the Hero is nonetheless a great deal of fun while it lasts.

In 1809, amoral soldier Neuville (Dujardin) has just gotten engaged to young society debutante Pauline (Noémie Merlant) when he is called off to fight in Austria.  When he fails to write, her sister Elisabeth (Laurent) fabricates letters from him, eventually killing him off when her well-intentioned deception goes too far.  Three years later he returns, drunken and derelict having deserted from his regiment, to find he’s mourned as a hero in the town.  Much to the rising panic of Elisabeth he decides to use this to his advantage.

Dujardin playfully sends up his matinee idol image, with his Cary Grant charm and Errol Flynn grin utilised in the service of a character who is as much buffoon as cad.  His ever-escalating, impressively devious sparring with Laurent is the definite highpoint; and the way the pair effortlessly spark off each other is hugely enjoyable, Laurent’s huge, expressive eyes finding a seemingly infinite variety of rolls, sideways glances, and other expressions of disdain and incredulity.  There’s never any doubt what the film has in store for our Napoleonic Beatrice and Benedick, but it’s the journey rather than the destination that prevails here.

The duo is backed by a strong supporting cast, appearing as willing suckers who exist to be exploited by both Neuville and, ultimately Elisabeth herself.  Principle among these are Merlant as Pauline, whose veneer of innocence masks a lustiness that would make Rabelais blush, and Christophe Montenez as Nicolas, her milquetoast husband whose masculinity and marriage is impugned by the blustering, virile Neuville.

It rattles along nicely, with the opulence of its visuals clashing pleasingly with the frivolity of its narrative.  That is until Tirard begins to introduce a more serious theme of trauma and the horrors of war that aims to humanise Neuville, paint him as something other than an enjoyable Flashman-like opportunist and coward, and ultimately afford him a redemptive arc.  Up until that point, there was no sense that Return of the Hero was anything other than a trifle, and the narrative suddenly rears like a spooked horse and never quite settles again, even as it canters to its inevitable conclusion.

Despite this case of tonal whiplash, Return of the Hero is a fast, funny and unchallenging romp of a film to which it is easy to succumb for its compact duration.  It will have the ephemeral impact of a footprint in light snow but is a great showcase for its two leads.