As an entertainment proposition, it’s hard to beat expert construction and unabashed sentiment. Marcel Pagnol, the French novelist, playwright, and filmmaker, had the combination down to a craft (if not an art) in the ’30s and ’40s. His work had a great vogue, and not just in France. If you want to know how enduring his appeal is consider the international success of “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring” in the ’80s (they’re based on one of his novels) or the fact that Alice Waters named her restaurant, Chez Panisse, after a character in Pagnol’s “Marseille” film trilogy.
Daniel Auteuil, who starred in “Florette” and “Manon,” is a Pagnol devotee. He’s currently remaking the trilogy, and he directed, adapted, and stars in this version of Pagnol’s 1940 film, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter.”
It’s rural Provence, in 1939. Auteuil plays the well-digger, Pascal, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays Patricia, the oldest of his six daughters. Bergès-Frisbey, who looks like a cross between the young Jennifer Connelly and the just as young Leslie Caron, is even lovelier than the rural scenery. She’s alternately described as an angel, a princess, and a treasure. Those words seem more like understatement than hyperbole.
No wonder that Felipe (Kad Merad), Pascal’s helper, has loved Patricia ever since she came back from Paris three years before, to care for her father and sisters after her mother’s death. A wealthy woman, recognizing Patricia’s virtues, had offered to take her to the capital and have her educated in a convent school. “She speaks French with a posh accent, like a minister,” Auteuil marvels. “She eats with a fork.”
That fork comment suggests that Pascal and his family are much more up-against-it than the movie shows. Pascal owns not one but two suits, and Peter Mayle would have no complaints if given title to the house the family lives in. It’s a safe bet that many viewers will be going to “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” not so much for the movie itself as the postcard views and a vicarious visit to the south of France.
The day of Patricia’s 18th birthday, Felipe asks Pascal if he can ask for her hand in marriage. Earlier that day, she met for the first time Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), an air force pilot who’s the son of the local merchant. Jacques is as handsome and dashing as Felipe is not. Jacques is also a jerk, as Felipe is not. “Down my well I’m a long way from the sky,” Felipe remarks to Jacques. Merad does a fine job letting Felipe’s geniality shine through his lumpishness. Even so, 40 million Frenchmen can tell you which guy Patricia says no to and which one yes (though the yes isn’t exactly to a marriage proposal). Oh, and then there’s the matter of war being declared.
It gives little away to note that things get much more complicated and quite sad before getting much simpler and happy. Auteuil the director knows not to get in the way of Pagnol’s plot machinery. Auteuil the actor is another story. He shamelessly hams things up (with a porkpie hat on, he bears an alarming resemblance to Joe Pesci), so that after a while you might start wondering if the actual title is “The Well-Digger’s Daughter’s Father.”
Say this for Auteuil: He has a sense of movie history. The closing credits include the equivalent of an Easter egg for lovers of film and especially for lovers of French film: “Remerciements a Danielle Darrieux pour son aimable autorisation.” Who knows what that friendly permission was for. Your guess is as good as mine. But yes indeed, special thanks to that great leading lady, who at 95 is still much with us.