Saturday, March 7, 2015

Daniel Auteuil's Marcel Pagnol

I didn't know Marcel Pagnol by name until last year, though I had seen a couple of film adaptations of his work in the eighties--"Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring."  Lately, having picked up an interest in Provence, I have taken a more particular interest in his work.

Pagnol's life coincided with the first three quarters of the last century.  His stories are set in Provence in the time of his childhood, in Marseilles, or inland, among the dry hills.  He was a playwright, novelist and filmmaker, though I've neither seen his own films, nor read any of his written work.  I therefore know him only through more contemporary film adaptations, the above-mentioned "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," as well as "My Father's Glory," "My Mother's Castle," "The Well-Digger's Daughter," "Marius" and "Fanny."  

I understand that he is not so popular as he once was.  No existentialist, or nihilist, or structuralist, his work mostly celebrates the working peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.  It's not all sunny, of course.  The heartbreaking "Jean de Florette" reveals just how very cruel a peasant maliciousness can be (comp. Hugo's mauvais pauvre).  But his plots typically follow the usual conventions of romantic melodrama:  infatuation, obstacles, dilemmas, and resolution, not always satisfactory.

Not too long ago I was re-watching "The Graduate," and was a little taken aback (as I shouldn't have been) by the fact that suddenly, it seemed, I was identifying, not with Benjamin, but with his parents (but not, I hope, with Elaine's).  Romance has a different cast from the parental perspective, and that's part of what struck me about these films.

Daniel Auteuil directed the three most recently-made films, "The Well-Digger's Daughter," "Marius," and "Fanny."  In all three films he also plays the widowed father of one of the romantic leads--the father of Patricia in "The Well-Digger's Daughter," the father of Marius in "Marius" and "Fanny."  Perhaps it was because he was directing himself, or perhaps it was because of my own age and role, but in all three films there was a pronounced sense of the joys, and fears, and conflicting demands on the paterfamilias--the urge to protect children (even those who have left childhood), the need to let them pursue their own separate ambitions, the vicarious happiness of anticipating their happiness, and the memory of one's own navigation of the uncertain waters of youth.

These stories are set in a conventionally-simpler time, in a setting that many would find idyllic--the landscapes of Provence, the Mediterranean seascape of Marseilles.  They have been mediated to us by Cezanne and Van Gogh, and arguably rendered irresistibly picturesque by the likes of Peter Mayle.  But the characters are real, and upon their actions and decisions hang happiness or misery, however quaint the setting or breathtaking the cinematography.

And the society is more traditional, more provincial, probably more patriarchal than our own.  But I don't have the problem with tradition that many have, and, far from seeing patriarchy as a thing evil in itself, I tend (as a pater myself) to see patriarchy as a power coupled with a responsibility, a kind and protective thing when used rightly, though unimaginably destructive when abused, or abusing.  One of the unexpected revelations in "Fanny" is the discovery that the old man who offers to marry her, whom we naturally imagine an old lecher, turns out to be motivated, himself, by a paternal instinct:  though a "rich man" in his own circle, he is sad and disappointed that he has no child himself.

 Pagnol in fact followed up "Fanny" with a third story, "César," the name of Auteuil's character, Marius' father.  Auteuil is supposed to have it in the works.  I will be looking for it.      

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