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Maurice Pagnol, the French novelist, and film maker –just to hint at his curriculum vitae— is likely best known to American audiences as the author of the 1963 novels which became two 1986 films, Jean de Florette  and Manon of the SpringClaude Berri directed both.  Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil starred, along with Emmanuelle Béart  in Manon and  Gérard Depardieu  in Jean de Flotette. Pagnol himself had directed a 1952 version of Manon of the Spring, in which his wife Jaqueline Pagnol played the fetching Manon.

When his name popped up during a recent Netflix scan as the source writer for the 2011 The Well-Digger’s Daughter,  I was interested and more when I realized it was set with WW I, the 100th anniversary of which begins this month, and that it was starring, and directed, by Auteuil. The hook was set.  We were delighted to have been caught.  A wonderful film.

Movies Well Diggers DaughterThe war, as it turns out, is back-, not fore-ground, though makes an important contribution to the plot.  The story take place wholly in Provence, of which Pagnol wrote often and lovingly.  Far from the Western-Front it was not, except for the loss of many of its young men, much affected by the war.  Auteuil plays Pascal Amoretti a rural, semi-educated well-digger and maintenance man.  He works in the heat and the mud, sometimes with explosives, alongside his younger –perhaps in his 30s– friend and employee, Félipe Rambert [played by Kad Merad], who he wouldn’t mind his eldest, 18 year old, daughter marrying. Widowed by the birth of the last of 5 daughters he keeps the family going with hard work and meager portions — though, the film, as Pagnol undoubtedly wrote it, makes it seem bucolic and carefree.  A day before Félipe awkwardly pops the question, Patricia  (the impossibly perfect Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) has been carried across a stream in the arms of a charming, and well-off, young man, Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle.) We know on subtle and withheld evidence that she is confused, fearful and smitten.  Overhearing that he is to fly in a local air-show, she lets herself be persuaded to go the village with Félipe, whose economic suitability for marriage is demonstrated by the car he owns. Proud of his savoir faire, he “introduces” the two young people and then, unknowingly, abets a ruse so they can sneak away.  Never has a first love (in modern cinema) been done so sweetly and unexploitatively.  Nary a bare shoulder, much less a breast, yet we know from her redoubled shyness what has happened.

The war has started. The young man receives sudden orders and disappears. His mother does not deliver a note explaining his failure to keep a rendezvous to Patricia.  She confesses her pregnancy to her father who brings the whole family of girls to the parents of the young man to demand he be made to do the honorable thing, to no avail.  The confrontational scene is wonderfully conceived, scripted and acted; Pascal’s eloquence and dignity is so perfectly drawn that we forgive him his anger in the scenes following as he sends his daughter away from the village to his sister, some hours distant, to have her child and hide her shame.

Meanwhile, Félipe, too, is sent to war, and second sister, Amanda [Emilie Cazenave] sets her cap for him.  News comes that the flier has been shot down and is presumed dead.  Father Amoretti undertakes a visit to his sister and daughter and in another perfect sequence of anger and tenderness, meets his grandson, is smitten and brings mother and child back home.  (Marie-Anne Chazel plays Nathalie, his tough, and wayward, sister who gives as good as she gets.)

This being a French dysfunctional family film, and one written by Pagnol no less, the ending is happy.  The men survive the war, the women marry for love. The torn family fabric is mended.

A previous, 1940, version of the same film, directed by Pagnol himself, receives high praise as a movie and particularly for the acting of Raimu,and Fernandel, then big stars, but condemnation along with it, as the first of Vichy films, in which director and actors were seen to be collaborating with the collaborationist, Nazi controlled, French government.  I’ve found copies of La fille du puisatier on-line at YouTube but without some sub-title help I have a tough time comparing.  Even so, one can see why it was popular in its time, and still praised.

You won”t go wrong at all with the 2011 Auteuil version. He clearly knows and loves his Pagnol.  As the well-digger, we believe his anguish at his daughter’s straying and his love for her and grandson overcoming it.  As director, we believe the  story he tells; we believe we are with him in 1914.  His casting and directing of Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is inspired.  She returns us to a time of pre-war innocence, before the permanent cynicism of today. We only wish, as the movie ends, that such primal feelings and social biases were really so sweetly overcome, that tenderness and family feeling would prove so strong, even at the edges of a terrible war.