Luscious scenery and combines with fine acting to produce a sort of French Merchant Ivory
Director: Claude Berri
Cast: Yves Montard (César Soubeyrnan), Daniel Auteuil (Ugolin), Gérard Depardieu (Jean Cadoret), Emmanuelle Béart (Manon Cadoret), Elizabeth Depardieu (Aimée Cadoret), Ernestine Mazurowana (Young Manon), Hippolyte Girardot (Bernard Olivier), Margarita Lozano (Baptistine), Yvonne Gamy (Delphine)
At the time this double bill (which I’ll refer to as Jean de Florette unless specifically referring to the sequel only) were the most successful foreign language films ever released. Shot over seven months, they were also the most expensive French films ever made and garlanded with awards, including a BAFTA for best film. Jean de Florette turned Verdi into the soundtrack for France, while its photography transformed the rural idyll of Provence into a major tourist destination and the dream location for holiday homeowners. The films themselves remain rich, rural tragedies, gorgeous French heritage films, a sort of French Gone with the Wind replayed as Greek tragedy.
Told in two parts – although designed as one complete movie – they tell a story of how greed destroys lives in 1920s rural Provence. César (Yves Montard) is the childless landowner whose only hope of a legacy is his hard-working but dense nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil). Ugolin dreams of growing carnations but the perfect land is frustratingly not for sale. When an argument with the owner leads to his accidental death, the land falls to Jean Cadoret (Gérard Depardieu) hunch-backed former tax collector from the city and son of Florette, the girl who broke César’s heart decades ago when she left the village while he impulsively served in the foreign legion.
César and Ugolin resent Jean – Jean of Florette as they call him – and hatch a plan to see his dream of a rabbit farm fail. They secretly block up the spring on Jean’s land and keep his connection to Florette a secret from the rest of the village, encouraging them to see him as an outsider and hunchbacked bad-luck charm. Ugolin befriends the decent, optimistic and hard-working Jean and watches the farm disintegrate. A decade later, in Manon des Sources, Jean’s daughter Manon (Emmanuele Béart) plots revenge for her father on Ugolin and César.
Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were adapted from Marcel Pagnol’s novel – written, ironically, after Pagnol’s film Manon des Sources was butchered down by the studio in 1952 from four hours into an abbreviated two. It’s a richly filmed, luscious picture crammed with gorgeous locations, sweeping camerawork and marvellous score that riffs on Verdi. It’s an entertaining story of injustice and comeuppances. It’s first half (Jean de Florette) is an, at-times painful, unfolding of Jean’s inevitable failure. The second (Manon des Sources) sees all those chickens come home to roost as Manon’s suspicions about César and Ugolin’s duplicitousness are confirmed.
But what perhaps made Jean de Florette as successful as it was, is its mix of Merchant Ivory and BBC costume-drama. Many outside of France essentially took it as art because the characters spoke French. But Jean de Florette is a tasteful, classy, very well-made prestige package designed to be easily digestible. Claude Berri marshals events with the skill of a natural producer – he’s effectively a sort of French Richard Attenborough with a great deal of natural talent with actors, but without the true inspiration of the greats. You couldn’t mistake Jean de Florette as something made by Carné let alone Godard or Truffaut. It’s decidedly too carefully, tastefully made for that.
Which is not to say it isn’t in many ways a very fine film. Its construction is well-executed across its two parts. Berri makes clear that – for all the film showed a picture post-card view of France, encouraged to promote tourism and ‘traditional values’ by the government – the village our film is centred around is rife with prejudice and underlying hostility. It’s all too easy to for them to take against Jean: not only he is an outsider, he’s a tax-collector and a hunchback to boot. Prejudice naturally sets them against him (the villagers gleefully watch this “city man” destroy himself vainly trying to turn his dry land fertile). Manon des Sources makes clear the whole village at the very least suspected the spring had been deliberately dammed but effectively couldn’t be bothered to help.
It’s not a surprise as Jean’s techniques are totally alien to the traditionalists. Played by Depardieu with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, guileless honesty and trust, Jean takes on farming as if its another mathematical problem. He has books full of calculations and productivity rates he expects to hit, covering everything from rabbit breeding to the daily amount of soil and water needed for crops. He is prepared for anything except the cruelty of humans and the weather (Berri makes clear that, even with one arm tied around his back by the spring being blocked, he nearly manages to pull it off).
Instead, his super-human efforts come to naught. Forced to walk miles a day to carry gallons of water back to his farm to irrigate his land, he starts to resemble the weighted down donkey he drags with him. Rubicons are crossed one by one: even his wife’s necklace is eventually called on to be pawned, for all his promises that it would never come to that (fitting the Zolaish tragedy here, the necklace turns out to be worth sod all). Ugolin does everything he can to befriend and support Jean without helping him, even ploughing the land for him when Jean comes close to finding the hidden water supply. The events beat down Depardieu, here in one of his finest “man of the soil” peasant roles, until he is literally left shouting at the heavens, imploring God to give him a break.
This makes is all the easier to despise César and Ugolin, especially as Berri cuts frequently to these hypocrites giggling at their own deviousness and Jean’s suffering. It makes Manon des Sources – arguably the even more rewarding part – all the more satisfying as we watch the two of them slowly destroyed, events replaying themselves from the other direction. Manon des Sources features a performance of Artemis-like grace from Emmanuelle Béart as the older version of Jean’s daughter (the younger noticeably never trusted Ugolin), whose beauty enraptures Ugolin and who in turn dams the source of the village’s water to expose the crimes against her father.
It leads to a series of shattering reveals that break César and Ugolin from their satisfaction and complacency. These two villains are portrayed in masterful performances by Yves Montard and Daniel Auteuil. Under buck teeth and a foolish grin, Auteuil is sublime as a man who has it in him to be decent but is all too easily led by his forceful uncle. He regrets his actions, while never making an effort to reform and reverts all too easily into a love-struck Gollum, spying on Manon and literally sewing her lost ribbon into his skin. He’s a pathetic figure.
Montard has the juiciest part, which flowers into one of true tragic force in Manon des Sources. César is a man whose life of regret and loneliness has turned him into a bitter old man, grasping, greedy and hungry for a legacy. He treasures the few possessions he has of Florette – faded letters and a single hair comb – like relics and subconsciously can’t bring himself to actually meet her son. Suppressed sadness makes him every more tyrannical and foreboding. But Manon explodes this exterior, as events and revelations strip away all he holds dear. It culminates in a breath-taking sequence of raw grief from Montard – which depends on the magnetic power of his eyes – as his last delusions are stripped away and the true horror of his actions exposed to him.
It’s this emotional power that gives the two parts of Jean de Florette its force and impact and lift it the higher plain of its costume drama roots. It may be a very self-consciously prestige picture, designed to appeal to the masses, but Berri’s conservative style is matched with a great skill of drawing powerful performances from the actors. He does this in spades with his four leads and events eventually gain, through their performances, some of the force of a Provence Greek Tragedy. Jean de Florette manages to avoid melodrama and provides real dramatic meat and, while it is not high art, it’s certainly very high drama.