THE WELL-DIGGER’S DAUGHTER – The Review
Review by Barbara Snitzer
Barbara Snitzer writes about French cinema at her movie blog Le Movie Snob
An open letter to M Daniel Auteuil:
D’abord, merci M Auteuil for letting me vicariously spend some of my remaining summer moments in my beloved Provence, especially the most beautiful village I have visited there, Salon-de-Provence. It is my sincere hope your directing début will attract more visitors than those who know it as Nostradamus’ birthplace. (Of course, not too many, especially the English.)
I congratulate you on the favorable reviews you are receiving, and it is with great regret that I cannot join the enthusiastic bandwagon. I do not agree with some criticisms I’ve heard from France that you are not a competent director; au contraire. Choosing a work from the œuvre of Marcel Pagnol whose works are set in the region of your childhood and brought you international acclaim are wise choices, I don’t begrudge your playing it safe. “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources,” are films of Pagnol’s stories that brought you well-deserved international acclaim and stardom.
Your film is as beautiful as those were. The pace; the casting, especially Kad Merad who should now be offered his choice of dramatic roles, and the gorgeous Nicolas Duchevalle (a handsome Patrick Dewaere) as Jacques Mazel; the gentle fades to black. It was beautiful to watch.
Finally, it may not have been obvious, or even intentional, but I was touched by your hommage to Gérard Dépardieu in acquiring a Provençal girth almost exactly the size of his when he was your co-star in “Jean De Florette.”
“Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources” were masterpieces. The following two Pagnol adaptations “My Father’s Glory (La Gloire de Mon Père) 1990″ and “My Mother’s Castle (Le Château de Ma Mère) 1991″ were adequate.
So why do I not like your movie?
I’m not an expert on Marcel Pagnol, and I’m not going to spend ten minutes on Wikipedia to pass myself off as one. My opinion is formed by these filmed versions of his novels, despite his having been a filmmaker in his own right. These stories all take place in the same era, in the same region, where the stories are created from the clash that results when the lives of the simple Provençal natives are disrupted when “outsiders,” usually more educated people, move in. They are exquisitely crafted moral tales in that they are told without prejudice; the audience judges. Would you mind if for the sake of convenience I assume you agree that this opinion is correct? Merci beaucoup.
I’m sorry to say that the blame begins with your portrayal of Pascal Amoretti, the well-digger of the title. In his first appearance on screen, we are meeting a loving father, a kind boss, and a hard worker. We like him. When his daughter becomes pregnant out of wedlock we know that the implications of this situation were far more serious at that time than today. His reaction endears him to us even more: treating his daughter with kindness, no physical violence against her, and his impassioned, pragmatic defense of her to the baby-daddy’s bourgeois stuck-up parents is a great feel-good moment. And then ….
….after baby-daddy’s family’s rejection, he banishes her, proclaiming her “a lost woman.” And she is, literally. He leaves her in the middle of the road and abandons her to seek refuge with her aunt, under strict instructions never to contact him nor her siblings again. Now, we don’t like you at all, and we feel deceived that you passed yourself off as a kind loving father. We hate you. Then, you find out she’s had a son, which you’ve always wanted, so it’s back to loving father and grandfather en plus. What the …..?
Veuillez m’excuser, please allow me to finish before interrupting. Merci. I understand this may well be Pagnol’s story (haven’t read it, not planning to) and I would never condone changing an artist’s work so as to me more politically acceptable in a different era. Jamais. Jamais.
So, after much reflection, here’s my point: it’s similar to the Heisenberg Principle. (I LOVE “Breaking Bad” and never thought I would have the occasion to explain this!!!)
One can’t ignore the current era when depicting a different era. Allow me to elaborate with an example: The show “Mad Men” is being produced in the 2000s and takes place during the 1960s. Their attention to detail is unmatched (and appreciated); people who lived during that time, who even lived in the milieu depicted have attested to its accuracy. However, the show itself has nothing in common with any TV shows produced during that era. The storylines are written by contemporary writers who are highlighting the differences between now and then.
Was there ever a black guest star on “Bewitched?” Did “The Dick Van Dyke” show depict a TV writer getting fired and becoming a Hare Krishna? These have been storylines on “Mad Men” that accurately reflect the times- looking back from today. This self-consciousness is impossible to evade. If “Mad Men” were made twenty years from today, it would be a different show.
Both “Mad Men” and “The Well Digger’s Daughter” have a sort of “charming misogyny” that we can tolerate, at least for now, as acceptable during those eras. But chauvinistic comments are a long way from abandoning one’s child. Today, this story is has more in common with what we hear of the Taliban than what we want to think of quaint Provence; even if you were faithful to the story; even if it’s the truth.
As a man of the twenty-first century, and even as gifted an actor as you are, you are unable to make the acrobatic emotional leaps required of this story. Unfortunately, one cannot always know where the line is until after he has crossed it. And that line is always moving.
Maybe “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources” would be seen differently today.
Except for one very French detail: Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s bee-stung lips, no matter how long your shots linger on them, will never be more beautiful than those of Emmanuelle Béart’ in “Manon des Sources” (before she went Hollywood and botched them up).
Emmanuelle Béart as Manon, before the fillers, courtesy telespectateurfr
Keep digging M. Auteuil. I am sure your well is deep and bountiful.
Le Movie Snob
THE WELL-DIGGER’S DAUGHTER Opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater