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A French Theme in Dixie

Hollywood's `Sommersby' echoes `The Return of Martin Guerre'

AMERICAN audiences are on the minds of French filmmakers these days. The latest fashion in French cinema, insiders have said lately, is to dream up a story that will appeal to the huge United States market, and make it into a French production as a sort of trial run. Nobody cares very much whether the French movie does well at the box office - as long as the rights to the story can be peddled to Hollywood for a hefty pile of dollars.

The picture that set this trend in motion a half-dozen years ago was "Three Men and a Baby," the Hollywood megahit based on "Three Men and a Cradle," a pleasant but forgettable French farce. Coming in a month or so is Hollywood's version of "La Femme Nikita," with Bridget Fonda and Harvey Keitel in the French-originated story of a government-controlled hit woman with a mysterious past.

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This month's example of the fad could probably pass as a thoroughly American project if you didn't know its history. It bears an English-sounding title, "Sommersby," and stars Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, who have rarely been accused of having Continental mannerisms. The story takes place right after the Civil War, and focuses on such traditionally American subjects as North-South rivalry, cotton and tobacco farming, and antiblack racism.

Yet other aspects of the plot - about a man returning home after years of absence, bringing tension and mystery with him - will seem familiar if you remember a French movie called "The Return of Martin Guerre," starring Gerard Depardieu and quite popular in American theaters about 13 years ago. Sure enough, the "Sommersby" screenplay by Nicholas Meyer and Sarah Kernochan is based on the "Martin Guerre" script by Jean-Claude Carriere and Daniel Vigne, who directed the original film. It's basically a remak e of the French drama, although it's so well-produced (and well-disguised) that few moviegoers are likely to mind its lack of originality.

The main character is Jack, a Confederate soldier who returns to his Southern home years after the war and reclaims his land, his house, and his family. While his friends and neighbors are happy to welcome him back, his wife Laurel seems unsettled by his presence - which appears odd at first, but becomes understandable when we realize that she thought her husband was gone for good and has acquired a new suitor who's nicer than her drunken, ill-tempered spouse ever was.

Jack is evidently a changed man, however, full of tenderness toward his family and goodwill toward his community. Laurel soon softens and takes him into her heart, and his friends proclaim him a hero when he devises a scheme to turn their infertile land into a thriving farm using group investment and communal trust to raise the needed capital.

Then things abruptly turn complicated, troubling, and puzzling. A drifter in town questions whether Jack is the real Jack Sommersby after all, or just a crafty pretender. Jack is then arrested for a murder committed in another time and place - leading Laurel to protect him by branding him an imposter, while he risks the hangman's noose by refusing to relinquish his identity as the authentic Sommersby.

With a number of different twists, this yarn worked pretty well in "The Return of Martin Guerre," and the "Sommersby" writers have given it a distinctively American flavor with some of their innovations. Jack is a supporter of the former slaves in his community, for instance, and the hate this subjects him to provides one possible explanation for the questions and accusations raised against him.

On a scene-by-scene basis, though, what makes "Sommersby" work is old-fashioned movie magic: the chemistry between Ms. Foster and Mr. Gere in their emotionally complex moments together; fine supporting performances by Bill Pullman and James Earl Jones; rich cinematography by Philippe Rousselot; and the smooth flow of the story under director Jon Amiel's guidance.

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"Sommersby" is not a great or resounding film. But it treats a tale that could have seemed merely tricky with enough warmth, intelligence, and humanity to make it an engaging two hours at the movies.

* `Sommersby' is rated PG-13 for sensuality. It contains sex scenes, some violence, and a bit of vulgar language.

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