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La Fille du puisatier

July 27, 2012
La Fille du puisatier

There’s just something about a well-made Marcel Pagnol remake. Or maybe that’s just me, having been raised on the 1986 Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources — a two-part remake of Pagnol’s 1952 Manon des Sources — in my high school French classes, which won Daniel Auteuil his first César award. Whatever the reason, when Auteuil decided to take to the director’s chair for a remake of La Fille du puisatier — subtitled in English as The Well-Digger’s Daughter — I knew I had to be there. Having seen it, I can safely say that Auteuil does not disappoint.

Like Manon des Sources, this story plays out in rural Provence, around the time of the first world war. Patricia Amoretti (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is the daughter of Pascal (Auteuil), the titular well-digger. Just eighteen, she spent her life between the ages of six and fifteen in Paris at a convent school until her mother died and Pascal needed her help raising her five younger sisters. With her education and finishing, Pascal sees her as even more of a princess than most fathers do their daughters, and he worries that a prince will come to sweep her away.

Unfortunately, the man she meets is not quite a prince; Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is the son of a rich shopkeeper (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in nearby Salon. When not tooling around on his motorcycle, he’s a pilot in France’s air force, much as that terrifies his overprotective mother (Sabine Azéma).

Patricia falls in love at their first meeting, but it’s on the second — when she ducks the company of her father’s coworker, Félipe (Kad Merad) — that things go rather a bit too far. It gets awkward, which is compounded by Jacques’ being suddenly called up to service. But of course the matter can’t just be left in the past; some consequences soon become apparent to anyone.

Provence is as gorgeous as ever, on screen; Auteuil brings out the landscape in his wider shots in a way that shows how little has changed in a century. And he also knows how to direct emotional scenes, bringing out the best in his able cast without going overboard with the melodrama; La Fille du puisatier may be a period romance, but it’s hardly a bodice-ripper.

The main cast all get plenty of chance to flesh out their characters. It’s hardly a surprise that Auteuil would give himself a nice, blustery part, but Merad’s amiable Félipe does a wonderful job in tempering Pascal’s pride. Next to Auteuil, Darroussin sometimes seems positively inert, but he embodies a quiet, genteel dignity.

But the power of the film is in how delicately it handles some incredibly problematic issues. Patricia’s early relationship with Jacques is fraught, to put it mildly, and Auteuil stays remarkably agnostic about it, neither forgiving nor condemning Jacques, though I wouldn’t blame anyone for being upset that he doesn’t take the latter course. And then there’s the matter of Patricia’s position as a fallen woman in rural Belle Époque France, and how her bastard child would be regarded even by her own, traditional Provençal father.

Yet Auteuil comes through this all with aplomb, letting Pagnol’s story play out for itself, and a beautiful story it is. He couldn’t have chosen a better way to dip his toes into directing, and if this is any indication the upcoming trilogy of Pagnol remakes — Fanny, Marius, and César — will be something worth looking forward to.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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