A two word review: Malice Springs!
It would be all too easy to write off Claude Berri‘s two-part adaptation of Marcel Pagnol‘s classic two-volume novel (known collectively as L’eau des Collines), as just another in a long line of period bucolic idylls, perhaps a French equivalent of the Archers, one where the farmers worry about their crops and their daughters in that order. If you have not seen these twinned movies, you may know them best by the haunting Verdi-derived harmonica-led signature tune, lampooned in a certain beer commercial, but – and trust me on this – you really should not be put off.
In fact Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources together form a classic tragedy worthy of the finest produced by the Greek masters, a tale of intrigue with a tragic ending bringing together all the preceding events. Interestingly, the liquid gold over which men wrangle and wreak destruction for their own perverse ends is, like Chinatown, H2O – good old-fashioned water to the likes of you and me, the lifeblood of a fertile soil and the key to making real the dreams of Jean Cadoret, a hunchbacked tax inspector who has inherited his mother’s house and land, little suspecting his wily neighbours have blocked up the spring that would otherwise give him the success he desires.
Why do that? In order to buy the land cheap and make a success of irrigating carnations, that’s what. A mean trick and cheap given the Soubeyran fortune. Worse, it results in the death of the naive but committed hunchback, and ultimately the sale of the house to Papet. But he and ugly and dim-witted Ugolin (last of the Soubeyrans and heir to a fortune) reckon without the revenge of the hunchback’s beautiful daughter Manon, less still the sting in the tail that marks the whole affair as a true tragedy.
So what marks out the credentials of this pair of movies for comparison with great literature and big screen adaptations, to distinguish it from mere rural soaps, other than a beautifully-judged plot with a beginning, a middle and an end, I hear you ask.
The first answer is that Berri has instilled into these movies all the virtues of great movie making, starting with sensitive handling of Pagnol’s raw material. Berri stays true to the original voice of Pagnol, both through his narrative drive and in recreating the stunning backdrop. Berri took full advantage of the landscape, one of his greatest coups being the recruiting of Bruno Nuytten to deliver a quite glorious cinematography, which did wonders for the tourist industry in Provence. But unlike many such yarns there is depth of content to make the ravishing scenic beauty that is so much more than just context and background. Roger Ebert‘s comment rings true when he points to:
“…the feeling that the land is so important the human spirit can be sacrificed to it.”
These are great achievements in their own right. The effect may appear old-fashioned to some eyes, but as a drama it works seamlessly, to the extent that neither film is less than compelling to watch and the 4+ duration of the two flies past. It could have been stodgy and lumpen fare, but in fact both movies skip through at a stately pace and stay light on their feet throughout.
Best of all, I could watch this quality of acting all day and all night. In French it may be (I always use subtitles regardless of language so it makes little difference to me), but the clarity and credibility is there to be admired in every character, and each represent a different human emotion, perhaps even the magnificent seven deadly sins: Yves Montand’s wily Papet is clearly struck by greed and Soubeyran pride, where his simpleton nephew Ugolin (the marvellous Daniel Auteuil) is in the first movie envious and by the second lustful. Gérard Depardieu‘s Jean also falls victim to pride, which as it turns out is entirely apt, and the grown-up Manon (the utterly stunning Emmanuelle Béart) suffers a tinge of wrath upon discovering the truth, with just a little help from her friends. Her revenge causes more than a little conflict in the village.
The characters spend a great deal of time watching one another in secret, not a bad idea given their various motives, but like the best of Greek tragedies you can be sure your sins will find you out and ultimately bring greater tragedy, though such tragedies are man-made, never divine retribution: there are no miracles, nor coincidences.
But whatever Montand’s sins, his wife Simone Signoret died during the filming of these movies. His grief is our grief when Ugolin hangs himself for unrequited love; rarely has an actor captured grief so completely that it he adopts it like a shroud, one that hangs heavy on his shoulders. It is a marvel of fine acting and it is certainly not coincidental but the cumulative effect of years honing his craft; quite breathtaking to watch, but then the skill of the performers makes this a compelling drama throughout.
You would do well to find a more beautifully played tragedy anywhere. As portrayed, the farmers of Provence could have been drinking pastis and playing pétanque their whole lives before stumbling in front of the camera and nobody would have been any the wiser. This is 19th Century Provence and its people as authentically portrayed as you could ever hope to see in 1986.
In fact, the least credible element is that in JDF Manon is roughly 7 and Ugolin somewhere in his 20s where in MDS Manon has gained 10 years minimum but Ugolin barely looks 5 minutes older. In fact Auteuil, 13 years Béart’s senior, married the actress 7 years after this movie was made, only to divorce some years later – a delicious counterpoint to her rejection of him in the movie (“It’s not me crying, it’s my eyes,” says the heartbroken Ugolin – a combination of revulsion and knowing his guilt condemning him beyond all hope of reprieve.)
The movies were received with almost unanimous acclaim. Despite the acceleration of Pagnol’s original prose for cinematic purposes, some argued with the pacing. To me that seems a trifle churlish, given the pace is dictated by the the land and climate and seasons, which in many ways adds to the authenticity. But nary a critic could dain to be sniffy about the quality. The tragedy is that, being a “foreign language movie” it got nominations but almost none of the awards it so richly deserved. I despair of the respective academies and juries.