Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 23, 2012 2:11 pm 
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Auteuil brings back Pagnol

Old fashioned, arguably retro values dominate Auteuil's Pagnol remake The Well-Digger's Daughter/La Fille du puisatier, a story of bad fortune reversed and meanness turned into decency. Nothing earth-shaking here, but the kind of movie that leaves mainstream audiences feeling good. There is an affirmation of simple country values and a look at the issues of class and illegitimacy and the vicissitudes of war. This version adheres closely enough to the 1940 original, but despite the well-digger and his assistant's preserving their heavy Provençal accents, otherwise the film is less naturalistic and more mainstream than the original, also glossier and better looking, with higher production values. Do we need this done over again? Somebody obviously thought so.

Auteuil's return to Pagnol material marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his debut in the two-film Pagnol novel adaptation of Jean de Fleurette and Manon of the Source (directed by Claude Berri), a French series hugely successful with US art house audiences. This time it's the now 62-year-old actor's show: he stars, wrote the adaptation of the original film, and directed. And he has made the well-digger Pascal Amoretti's character even stronger -- and more intensely conflicted -- than the blocky, gruff figure embodied the first time by Raimu.

The story's pretty simple. Amoretti calls his titular 18-year-old daughter Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) back from being educated by nuns in Paris to take care of his five other younger daughters in Provence. Her good looks and manners and proper French much attract Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the putatively dashing pilot son of M. Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the rich local owner of a hardware store. A couple of dates and rides on a motorcycle get Patricia pregnant. She has fallen for Jacques, but the war's breaking out and Jacques is off to the front, and so is Pascal's simple, good-humored assistant Félipe (Kad Merad), who wanted to marry Patricia before this happened. Mazel senior and his ditzy, hysterical wife (comedic vet Sabine Azéma) are not friendly when Pascal comes with all his daughters to inform them of Patricia's condition and the fact that their son is responsible. Then Jacques is shot down and they are devastated. And things change, and change again.

Darroussin adds an authentic severity to his part; Azéma and Merad are a little too light and comedic, and Azéma really overdoes it. The formerly bad-boy Duvauchelle is a bit too low-key: he's more slinky and creepy than really dashing here, alas. Bergès-Frisbey has a delicacy and sensitivity that are good for the role of Patricia, but she's also a bit bland. In truth though the story line is so simple, involving, and well worked out than no one actor, or character, is crucial. Auteuil does not hesitate to make his role and performance even more central, creating a Pascal more solid and intense than Raimu's 1940 version. Auteuil's Pascal is violent and almost cruel with Patricia when he thinks he must abandon her cause, and melting and sweet when he has a change of heart . His big encounters with M. and Mme. Mazel are peculiarly emotional and dramatic. He winds up being the most interesting actor to watch, but he keeps the cast and the tone nicely balanced (with the slight exception, again, of Azéma).

As is usual with Pagnol, the south of France material is warm and humanistic, and is a time capsule, a portrait of cultural values much changed since. With its bell-ringing musical background, the London Symphony strings coming in at appropriate touching moments and the super-happy ending, this is a movie that offers little for sophisticates. But its still a good story well told and like those earlier movies it's likely to delight the segment of the art house audience that is looking for charm rather than edginess. Those who can't wait for the film's summer 2012 US release can watch it during the Lincoln Center-UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. And the producers were so pleased with Auteuil's handling of this Pagnol outing, they hired him to do the earlier Pagnol film trilogy, César, Fanny, and Marius, which will come out later this year.

This film opened in Paris April 20, 2012 to so-so reviews that nodded to Auteuil's directorial debut and his performance. Knowledgeable observers noted that the Pagnol originals are superior. And there is no denying, and some French critics affirmed, that this is very far from being a fresh and exciting new work or approach.

Screened for this review as part of the UniFrance-Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in March 2012. The Well-Digger's Daughter opened in NYC July 20, 2012. It is coming to other cities served by the Landmark chain. It was released in the UK December 9, 2011.

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