“The Return of Martin Guerre” is a French movie filmed in 1982 by Daniel Vigne. The movie depicts real historical events in France of the 16th century. The important aim of the “The Return of Martin Guerre” is to educate the less known information about that period in history to the broad audiences.
In the middle of the 16th century in France, Martin Guerre left his wife and child over a fight with his father. Eight years later Arnaud du Tilh, a man who claimed to be Martin Guerre, came to the village. Bertrande, the former wife of Martin Guerre, claimed to know him as her husband. All other relatives and people from the village recognized him, too. However, the doubts started to rise, and Pierre Guerre, Martin Guerre’s uncle, together with Bertrande accused Arnaud in deceiving them by being a fake. The situation became clear only after 12 years when a real Martin Guerre came back to the village. He did not have one leg which was shot off in Flanders. Arnaud du Tilh was hanged and Martin Guerre took his previous place. Bertrande was forgiven of cheating as the judge believed that she was deceived by the fake Arnaud.
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At the first sight it might seem that Bertrande was just a simple housewife, tragically left by her husband, and who tried to keep together her soul and body. Moreover, she lived with the impostor for four years. But such a picture definitely did not suit Natalie Davis who was the author of the book “The Return of Martin Guerre” and the movie was based on that book. Bertrande seemed to be a very feministic woman who possessed “a concern for her reputation as a woman, a stubborn independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could maneuver within the constraints placed upon her sex” (Izgad, 2008).
A certain alteration of the events began even before Martin departed. The couple did not have children for the eight years of marriage and people thought that they were under a curse that prevented the husband to impregnate his wife. A ‘wise woman’ advised the couple how to behave in order to have a child. And after Bertrande and Martin “had four masses said by priest and were given sacred hosts and special cakes to eat”, Sanxi, the son was born (Izgad, 2008). I support the opinion of many historians agreeing that it was very weird that the couple who could not have children at that time, stayed together for such a long time.
At this point we encounter the first feministic problem of Bertrande: She would probably leave her husband easily but the thought arises – either she really loved her husband or was simply scared of what he could do to her in case she left him. The author made it clear that nevertheless the fact that Bertrand did not love Martin, she decided to stay with him in order not to get back under the control of her father. Being much smarter than someone could think, Bertrand, in such a way, avoided living with her father, and was freed from the duties of marriage, that is raising children. “Then when Bertrande was ready for it, the old woman ‘appeared suddenly as if from heaven’ and helped to lift the spell” (Izgad, 2008). The situation was actually another fraud worked out by the old woman and Bertrande.
At this point, it is important to remember that in France of the 16th century women were secretly organized, going under a banner “along with the system, passing it on through the deep tie and hidden complicity of mother and daughter” (Izgad, 2008). Because of this I wondered whether Bertrande was happy staying alone after Martin’s departure.
Daniel Vigne left the interpretation of the Bertrand’s doings undiscovered and enigmatic making people think what was her real intentions when she did not tell the truth about Arnaud. Unfortunately, the feministic part of the book was omitted by the director which did not allow people to see that early but so modern significance of the real female ‘honor’, including the difficulties that Bertrande could have faced being a woman married, though without a husband.
Despite this significant drawback, the movie was very successful in challenging certain serious misconceptions in quite powerful and stimulating way making the audience to ask more questions to get to know as much information as possible. “The Return of Martin Guerre” discovered an unknown past to a much wider audience helping people to see what really had happened and how the people lived in those times: the French peasantry of the 16th century and their traditions, culture, and beliefs.
The women during that period were highly underestimated and even disrespected. The main role of the woman was to stay at home, take care of innumerable children who often died, and do all the chores about the house. In villages the situation was especially acute. It did not matter whether that was a father’s house or a husband’s house – women’s duties remained the same. Being often subjected to the violent and aggressive treatment by the males, females were left only to do all the best for their men to make them feel good so they would not treat them in a wrong way again.
The main reason of such low treatment, in my opinion, was in the lack of education and high level of death from various deceases. Most of those deceases were the reason of unsanitary living conditions and hard work which was mounted on the French peasantry, especially women.
This was the way Bertrande was treated. However, she appeared to be much smarter than she behaved at the beginning. Robert Finley writes in his skillful work of “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre” that we should understand Bertrande’s and Martin’s marital life without children as nothing else but that they actually did not have a sexual intercourse at all (Finley, 1988). When the ‘old woman’ came to help the couple with her ‘magic spell’, the wife got pregnant immediately. If Bertrande realized the difference in sexual manner between her real husband and the fake spouse, she could also understand that her years of sexual abstinence did not allow her to learn her real husband better, therefore, she lost an important ability to discern the manner and look of her husband from the fake one. Arnaud, having some days with Bertrande before he appeared in the village, collected all necessary knowledge about her marital life, marriage in general, relatives, and even including intimate details. The first couple of people, who especially welcomed him home, were Martin’s sisters, who Bertrande later on blamed a lot for misleading her.
However, all the facts showed, that Bertrande was quite understanding about who she was going to be with. The growing amount of historians agreed that Bertrande just wanted someone to share the nights with her after the long abstention and then quick impregnation as soon as she started real sexual life. On the other hand, we should not underestimate Arnaud either, as he was sly enough to deceive the sisters of Martin Guerre. One more reason that makes is very unlikely that Bertrande was fooled by Arnaud is that the author said clearly “there is no mistaking the touch of the man on the woman” (Finlay, 1988). Of course, not each woman could recognize the man by the way she was touched, however, let us agree that this point is quite strong to allow us to accuse Bertrande in dishonesty.
In the conclusion I would like to say that despite all the cheatings of Bertrande which are so well-hidden in the movie, I do not consider her to be a bad woman. She can actually be fairly considered a bright example of an early feminism, the woman who went against her father’s will, her husband’s faithfulness in order to feel how it was to be a real woman in all aspects of this word.
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