The Well Digger’s Daughter: Scandal in the Sunlight

This French romantic drama boasts the rustic virtues of a vanished movie age

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Kino Lorber

Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays Patricia in 'The Well Digger's Daughter'.

“Everyone has his reasons,” said the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir. He meant that in a book, play or movie, all characters, no matter how dastardly their actions, should be guided by their own plausible logic. Renoir might have been referring to the films of Marcel Pagnol, one of the lions of French cinema in the 1930s and ’40s, and a man who could fashion intense social conflict with nary a villain in sight.

Consider three examples from Pagnol’s 1940 film The Well Digger’s Daughter (La fille du puisatier). A young man of position takes an innocent village girl to bed, then disappears without a word to her. Why would he do that? When the girl becomes pregnant, her father, a well-digger, sends her away — from pride or love? The young man’s mother keeps a secret that might resolve the tension of these two families. Is that maternal protectiveness or a mere plot device?

A modest schoolteacher from the Southern area of Provence, Pagnol wrote plays and novels, then wrote and directed movies, about the people he knew — rural workmen, city shopkeepers and their devoted, rebellious children — so carefully and caringly, and with such popular acclaim, that he was able to build a studio in Marseille where he produced his own films, as well as Renoir’s 1934 Toni. And, as producers will, Pagnol married one of his most lustrous stars, Josette Day, who played the title role in The Well Digger’s Daughter.

(FIND: a Jean Renoir film, but no Pagnol, on the all-TIME Movies List)

The first filmmaker to be admitted into the Académie Française, Pagnol was world-renowned for his “Marseille trilogy,” which became the Broadway and Hollywood hit Fanny. As the film historian David Thomson writes, “Marius, Fanny and César are frequently revived, their world forever warm.” (The fourth major character in the trilogy lent his name to Alice Waters’ Berkeley, Cal., restaurant Chez Panisse.) In 1986, Claude Berri directed the two-part adaptation of Pagnol, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, starring Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, Emmanuelle Béart as the angelic Manon and — in the role of Montand’s vindictive son Ugolin — Daniel Auteuil, launched by the films’ success into a career as one of Frence’s most valued actors.

Pagnol must have adhered to Auteuil’s soul. The actor is now shooting remakes of the Marseille trilogy, with himself as César. And as a warmup exercise, he has written, directed and starred in a new version of Pagnol’s 1940 film The Well Digger’s Daughter. It’s just satisfying enough to offer viewers a rear-view glimpse into the rich dramatic soil of Pagnol country, where good intentions are challenged by unforeseen events, and passion conflicts with propriety.

(READ: Corliss on Daniel Auteuil in Michael Haneke’s Caché)

In the Provençal town of Salon, as war breaks across France, Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil) does honorable manual labor, digging holes to create wells for the locals. His late wife gave Pascal no sons but six daughters, his dearest being the 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). “A princess” he calls her, “an angel.” Pascal’s simple, cheerful assistant Felipe (Kad Merad) thinks so too — he’d love to marry the girl. But Patricia, who spent 10 years in Paris, learning proper French that Pascal can hardly understand, is beguiled by the sophistication and good looks of Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the aviator son of the town’s wealthy shopkeeper (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife (Sabine Azema). Patricia’s tryst with Jacques has consequences that will explode in both families like the rocks Pascal blasts when he digs his wells.

In this virtually verbatim remake of the Pagnol tale, Auteuil keeps all of the plot and most of the dialogue, as when Pascal tells the shopkeeper, “You can’t trust a man who sells tools and never uses them.” His cast’s gestures also mimic those of the original stars: Raimu (as Pascal), Fernandel (as Felipe), Charpin (as M. Mazel) and Day (as Patricia). When Felipe asks about Pascal’s late wife, the well digger exclaims, “What a woman she was!” And Auteuil sculpts in the air a silhouette of her bosom and buttocks — exactly as the great Raimu had.

(READ: Corliss on two modern Pagnol classics by subscribing to TIME) 

Raimu said of Pagnol, “His genius lies in his ability to take the public from laughter to tears and back again in a flash.” And however earthy the author’s characters, they rarely overheat into rustic bluster. Auteuil wisely follows Pagnol’s rule and keeps the emotional temperature at simmer. In both versions of The Well Digger’s Daughter, the tense confrontation between Pascal and the Mazel parents is conducted in a muted tone, as the proletarian’s respect for this bourgeois couple mutes his rage that they won’t acknowledge their responsibility.

Pagnol’s films looked as rough as a well-digger’s hands; shot in black-and-white and mostly in closeup or medium shot, they revealed the Provençal landscape mostly through its effect on their characters. Auteuil’s version — filmed partly in Chapelle Saint-Sixte, near Raimu’s Toulon birthplace — glistens with the color-filled, sunlight-streaked images that compel critics to use the word “dappled.” The camera caresses the actors’ pretty or craggy faces, on the alert for each nuanced reaction, every moment of suppressed fury.

Alexandre Desplat’s luxurious score also tries to cushion the characters — though the overworked composer (The King’s Speech, the Harry Potter finale, The Tree of Life, The Ides of March, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Moonrise Kingdom and the Cannes 2012 entry Rust & Bone, just to name films from the last two years) seems to have momentarily run out of tunes. For his signature melody here, he appropriates, nearly note for note, Krzysztof Komeda’s theme from Rosemary’s Baby.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Moonrise Kingdom)

Even in 1940, Pagnol was something of an anachronism. In a country that had just been invaded and occupied, his films seemed vestiges of a simpler time. Yet today, to the sympathetic eye, they look timeless. Auteuil’s faithful version of The Well Digger’s Daughter thus plays like a revival of a classic play. And because the  first “production” can still be seen — not on an official DVD but available from private dealers — the new film’s performances have to be judged by the high standards set by Pagnol’s actors.

The results are mixed. The gruff baritone that Raimu brought to the role of Pascal is replaced by the high-pitched tenor of Auteuil, who indulges in more ruminative head-scratching and brow-furrowing than his predecessor. Bergès-Frisbey, the runway model who played the mermaid in the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, is too pretty-pouty to impart much gravity to Patricia. And Azema, that ageless comic sprite, hogs the screen as Mrs. Mazel; she is the one shrill note in the ensemble.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Sabine Azema in Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass)

On the plus side, Merad, the Algerian-French radio comedian who has proved a sensitive film actor, makes a very engaging Felipe, with a considerably higher charm level and IQ than Fernandel. Also superb is Darroussin, who will play the gentle, cuckolded Panisse in Auteuil’s imminent remake of the Marseille trilogy. He is expert at revealing M. Mazel’s troubled conscience, sympathizing with Pascal even as he needs to support his more aggressive wife. The full-bodied performances of Merad and Darroussin give everyone — everyone with an indulgence for old movies about old values — a reason to see this Well Digger’s Daughter.