The Return of Martin Guerre
by Bonnie Kaufman, M.D.


As in an analysis, where the analyst assumes the dual stance of experiencing and observing the patient, I would like to approach The Return of Martin Guerre in a similar spirit. Despite the limits to what we can accomplish by putting a film on the couch, our associations are a source of information about what the film and its creators are telling us. As in working  with a patient, we can follow not only the words, but also the "music," not only the narrative, but also the process of the narration, which in film involves not only the dialogue but also the visual and non-verbal elements of cinema.

It begins with the image of a lone man, dressed in some sort of official garb, riding along a dirt path, on a mule or horse, a beast of burden.  The man is a person of some importance, on some official business, as his clothing indicates. There follows a piece of text, the title, set apart by a sort of musical fanfare, The Return of Martin Guerre. The next image is this solitary rider passing through a flock of sheep. The man enters a village, and the scene shifts to the villagers preparing for, then celebrating the wedding of Martin and Bertrande. Through the juxtaposition of these images, the people are compared in the narration to the flock of sheep, a pastoral and biblical image. They do not think for themselves, but are guided by others and go where the others wish them to go. When they stray, they must be found and returned to the flock. Like the first couch dream of an analysis, much of the essence of this story is found in these first images. 

Then, after we see Martin's seemingly sullen and frightened reluctance/ inability to consummate his marriage, the scene seems to return to the solitary rider entering the village; this time, however, it is another man, albeit in similar dress, and the time, we eventually learn, is nearly two decades later. Apparently little has changed in this village. The rest of the story will be told retrospectively, much as an adult analysand will recount and re-experience the events of earlier days.

Let me return to what I skipped over--the text of the title. "Guerre" in French, means war. "Martin," too, has a warlike meaning--it is translated in my dictionary as "(a man) armed with a cudgel, also called martin-baton"  So Martin Guerre is an implement, and at the same time a victim, of war. War pervades this film in different guises--the far-off war in Spain which takes Martin away from his personal war with his father and with himself, his sullen and cruel treatment of his young and beautiful wife, the sharp divisions between the peasants and the patriarchal institutions of God and government, and the battles over money and property, the sources of the only dignity and respect that a poor man can hope to achieve. It is a society of repressive patriarchy, where the needs of the individual and particularly the women, are subsumed by the requirements of the social, political and religious authorities; any individual, be he or she peasant, cleric or even judge, who attempts to subvert this order is, sooner or later, destroyed.

My associations led me to another film set in wartime—Casablanca. You may  know this dialogue by heart, but I'd just like to quote briefly—Rick (Bogey) reveals to Ilsa that he will not leave Casablanca with her, but reminds her that they will always have Paris, now that he understands why she had to desert him there several years before. Then he says "Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Yet ironically, the problems of those three little people mean everything in the world of Casablanca, as though the second world war was being fought precisely so that they and other individuals could fall in love, be foolish, have their personal tragedies and triumphs, and live happily ever after, if only in their memories. The psyche of the individual is paramount.  That special combination of altruism and celebration of the individual transformed by love is what makes Casablanca a modern love story.

In Martin Guerre, by contrast, identity seems to be socially constructed. The individual is what the society requires of him. If he refuses, or strays from his place, he is a pariah. If, as the villagers believed in this film , he returns, he is welcomed back into the fold, or the flock, and the fabric of existence is repaired. Arnaud makes many errors of fact when he returns; in fact, the first identification he attempts to make is wrong. The villagers do not worry too much about these lapses and discrepancies in the faux Martin's story; they need him to be who and what he says he is for life to return to the status quo. When they see concrete proof of his deception, when Martin vrai returns, Martin faux is cast out, again to preserve the fabric of society. As Jonathan mentioned, Martin vrai is a castrated figure, yet the film figures him as the victor, who ultimately reclaims the place he left so long ago--as son, nephew, husband, father, and most importantly heir to and holder of land. The film's narration tells us this quite clearly--like the "fanfare" accompanying the text title at the beginning of the film, the "fanfare" that heralds Martin's return from the war is the rhythmic pounding of his crutch and wooden leg on the floor as he enters the courtroom; the first shot we see of him is not his body or his face, but his Three Legs, from behind--left to right--his crutch, his left leg and his right prosthesis. In this narration, that amputated leg represents not castration but a hyperphallus, an implement of war, sharpened for the kill.

Aside from Martin vrai, three characters know the truth--Martin faux, Bertrande, and eventually, Jean de Couras, the Magistrate. I agree that he comes closest to functioning as an analyst, in his efforts not only to know, but to understand why things have happened. Unfortunately, there is no role for a psychoanalyst in this society; Jean is required to mete out punishment. He tries his best to convince his colleagues to spare Bertrande; in so doing, is saving Arnaud as well, in that he does what he knows the doomed man would have wanted--for his wife's life to be spared. Twelve years later, Jean is himself executed, and although the events leading to that execution are remote from this story, the narration leads us to understand that it is really the same story--if you try to defy the social order, you are cast out and destroyed.

There are questions raised by viewing the film from a 21st century psychoanalytic perspective--What is the cause of the battle between Martin and his father?; What makes Arnaud do it? Is it truly about greed? Or something else? And even if it is greed, what makes him actually go through with the deception, rather than just think about it? What is it about Bertrande that enables her to take Arnaud to her bed, despite her doubts and fear of damnation? And what has enabled Jean to rise above his official role and exhibit both curiosity and compassion? The film doesn't take much interest in these questions. A somewhat discomfiting issue that was raised for me is the question of how much psychoanalytic theory and practice are bound to the cultural forms of contemporary Western society. Just as it is hard to understand in psychoanalytic terms these French peasants of 450 years ago, our instrument, in its traditional forms, seems unable to reach the inner lives of non-Western cultures in our own era.

The three characters who resonate for us with more contemporary ways of being--Arnaud, Bertrande and Jean de Couras--are also the three main characters who are literate. Bertrande isn't truly literate, but she is initiated into literacy by Martin faux, just as he initiates her into a "marriage" of genuine love and concern, and into a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. As she proves that she can write her name, Bertrande's pride is not only in this accomplishment, but also in a new experience of herself as a woman. Bertrande's connection with Arnaud elevates her status from chattal to partner. The members of the Guerre family use marks, pictographs, to designate themselves; Arnaud uses written language. In so doing, he commands a signifier to represent a signified, and enters the register of the symbolic. And as the symbolic realm can permit a slippage from one signified to another, so the words father, husband, lover, neighbor, can be elevated out of the concrete and opened to more elaborated, nuanced meaning.

So, finally, who is the vrai Martin Guerre? Is it the issue of Maturin Guerre and Bridget, or the man born Arnaud of Tigl, who loved his wife and children and ultimately sacrificed himself for them? If the year were, as in Casablanca, 1942, there would be no question about it. But it is not. As Arnaud's neck is snapped and he swings on the gallows, the doorway to the realm of the symbolic closes for Bertrande. In tears, she starts toward the body of her beloved, to be forcibly restrained by Martin. That tension will be her life from now on. And she will never have Paris.