Daniel AuteuilThe veteran French film star Daniel Auteuil just can't seem to tear himself away from his passion for Marcel Pagnol.

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The actor shot to fame playing Ugolin, the dim and shifty peasant opposite Gérard Depardieu, Yves Montand and Emmanuelle Béart in Claude Berri's 1986 film versions of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, based on two of Pagnol's best-known works.

Auteuil's performance earned him a César (a French Oscar) and proved to be the breakthrough role of his career. And the two films themselves were enormous arthouse hits. They defined a mythic Provence for international audiences and helped spark a huge increase in tourism to Southern France.

Many years later Auteuil eventually made his own debut as a director in 2011 with a film of Pagnol's La Fille du Puisatier (The Well-Digger's Daughter). It enjoyed a modest success internationally and is now available on DVD: click here to find The Well-Digger's Daughter on Amazon.

And his second directorial project? Pagnol again, of course: a version of the famous Marius-Fanny-César trilogy. The first two installments opened simultaneously in France in July 2013. But they didn't achieve the hoped-for commercial success and César, the third part, seems to have been put on permanent hold.

Marius and Fanny are now available as (subtitled) DVDs in a two disc box set. Click here to buy them.

Marcel PagnolBorn in Aubagne, Pagnol, pictured, grew up in Marseille and devoted his life to commemorating Provence and its exuberant, resilient characters. "Pagnol gave Provence its identity," Auteuil has said.

"The words we hear, the words we say come from him. I discovered some of his plays at the Avignon Festival. But I didn't realise at first the universal scope of his work. He was regarded as a regional writer.

"When I arrived in Paris I started to read Pagnol and [Jean] Giono. And then one day I was offered the role in Jean de Florette."

Auteuil was a pied noir, born in Alger, Algeria while the country was still a French colony. He spent his childhood in Avignon and still maintains an apartment there.

He has remained in touch with the Pagnol family ever since Jean de Florette, and it was they who encouraged him to return to the writer for his own first film, The Well-Digger's Daughter.

 

 

The result doesn't break new ground, nor does it aspire to, but it's a sweet, defiantly old-fashioned, faithful, well-crafted and immaculately performed chronicle of Pagnol's story.

Astrid Berges-Frisbey in The Well-Digger's DaughterThe outspoken and opinionated well-digger - matchlessly played by Auteuil himself - is a widower. He is also the patriarch of a family of six daughters, the eldest and loveliest of whom (the Franco-Spanish actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) falls for a caddish local charmer.

The young man is called up for service as an aviator in the Second World War, though not without first making her pregnant. The cast additionally includes Kad Merad, Sabine Azéma, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Nicolas Duvauchelle (pictured, with Bergès-Frisbey).

The Well-Digger's Daughter is set and shot in the lush Alpilles area around Eygalières rather than in the much more arid landscapes of Pagnol's native Aubagne that form the backdrop to Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.

It unfolds during a sun-drenched provençal summer (though sharp-eyed viewers will notice a mild Mistral rustling through the trees throughout the film).

As in Jean de Florette: the cardinal importance of water in rain-starved Provence is established in the very first scene, when the rich young man asserts that the only river in the region runs through his family's land.

The writing is a little theatrical and sentimental by modern standards, but also tremendously vivid, economical, funny and generous. The Well-Digger's Daughter was first filmed by Pagnol himself in 1940, with Raimu and Fernandel in the leading roles.

Bergès-Frisbey, pictured below, first came across The Well-Digger's Daughter at a drama course when she was starting out as an actress. "I love his writing," she said. "It's a language full of sun and humanity, both serious and light-hearted, funny and profound. I love his relationship with ordinary people, whom he turns into extraordinary characters."

Astrid Berges-Frisbey in The Well-Diggers Daughter"Pagnol plunges you straight into a world of emotion," Auteuil has noted. "Each time you read him, he grabs you with the same force. Here I felt a desire to make people hear these words, these feelings, as if they were being said for the first time. Especially since, apart from the title, The Well-Digger's Daughter isn't even Pagnol's best-known work.

"Then the thing that touched me most deeply was the fact that I would be able to speak about people familiar to me, that I knew or had known, emotions and values close to me, that have made me what I am and that are in some cases almost taboo today. It's what still makes up the power and beauty of Pagnol's work. It's a magnificent story of love, tenderness, sorrow and forgiveness.

"Clearly the film is addressed to my parents and to the young man I used to be. But The Well-Digger's Daughter is not at all the same story as Jean de Florette; different things are at stake and even its vision of Provence is quite different. This is my Provence, where I grew up and lived.

"At the same time this film certainly wouldn't have existed if I hadn't made Jean de Florette, if I hadn't kept up those links with the Pagnol family and without everything that Claude Berri's film brought me. But I'd say it was there more as an echo than as a reference point."

The Marius, Fanny, César trilogy is seen by many as Pagnol's masterwork. The three instalments started life as stage plays, then were filmed by Pagnol and others in the early 1930s.

Victoire Belezy as Fanny in Daniel Auteuil's Pagnol trilogyThey tell of Fanny, a shellfish seller on the Old Port of Marseille, César, a bar-owner, and Marius his son. Marius impregnates Fanny, his childhood sweetheart, but then runs off to pursue the real love of his life, the sea.

To escape disgrace, Fanny marries the much older Panisse in order to give her child a father: as in The Well-Digger's Daughter, the big-hearted friend offers to raise the child as his own.

Auteuil takes the role of César, Jean-Pierre Darroussin plays Panisse and rising stars Raphaël Personnaz and Victoire Bélézy, pictured, play Marius and Fanny.

"It's true that things are different today for young people," Auteuil has commented. "Birth out of wedlock is no longer the disaster it used to be in the 1930s. But this isn't what the film is really about. Pagnol's message is above all about passing on values and what it means to be a father today, what his place is. And that doesn't change much.

 

 

"It's also a marvellous love story between two young people who will love each other their whole life, even if they don't spend it together. This is what makes Pagnol universal and timeless."

The card game scene from Marcel Pagnol's Marius

The films were shot partly in the studio in Paris and partly on location on Marseille's Old Port, the exuberant location indelibly identified with the Trilogy (the famous card game scene in Marius is set in the Bar de la Marine, which today remains one of the city's most popular harbourfront watering holes). Pictured: the card game scene from the 1931 film version.

By the way, if you're planning to see the films without subtitles, be warned: Auteuil was keen to insist that all the actors speak with a strong, salty Marseille accent.

Find further reading and viewing on Amazon:

The Well-Digger's Daughter (DVD)

Marius & Fanny (DVD)

Jean de Florette (book and DVD)

Manon des Sources (book and DVD)

La Fille du Puisatier (book, in French only)

 

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