Friday, March 20, 2009

The best French language films - part 3: 'My Father's Glory' and 'My Mother's Castle'

Check out any parts of the series you may have missed - part 1, part 2, part 4, and part 5

It's difficult to decide which of the two films is better – 1990's My Father's Glory (La Gloire de mon père) or its sequel, My Mother's Castle (Le Château de ma mère). There is very little time lost between the two, with My Mother's Castle beginning at what seems to be mere moments after its prequel ends. They are the films that director Yves Robert is best remembered for.

Both are based on famed French novelist Marcel Pagnol's memoirs. Pagnol's work was also the inspiration for two other celebrated French films, Jean de Florette and Manon des source. In My Father's Glory, we are introduced to a young Marcel (Julien Ciamaca), who at the start of the 20th century spends his summer in France's southeast region of Provence. Marcel's boyhood days unfold before us, with an adult Marcel, narrating the film's events. It is here in Provence that Marcel watches a quarrel between his atheistic schoolteacher father, Joseph (Philippe Caubère) and his religious Catholic uncle, Jules (Didier Pain). It is here that Marcel learns the ways of Provence's hilly landscape from his new found friend Lili (Joris Molinas).

My Mother's Castle picks up where the first film left off, with Marcel and his family spending their weekends at a cottage in the country. It is a long, difficult journey on foot, and much of the film is devoted to the family's trips across country estates, simply to reach their cottage. In this film, Marcel encounters the lovely young Isabelle (Julie Timmerman) who beguiles him and lords over him.

As both films progress we see why Marcel longs for his days away from city life in Marseille. It is a setting in which we fall in love with Marcel's cicadas, his orchards, his wide night sky, his vineyards, his hills – oh, the hills. Provence becomes more than just his beloved countryside – it becomes another character, in some ways more real and engaging than most members of Marcel's family.

The one member who does rival Provence, is Marcel's father Joseph, played by actor Philippe Caubère. He plays Joseph beautifully and he is stunning as a good-natured, but distant and intellectual schoolteacher. It is in My Father's Glory that he truly shines. Marcel is both amazed by his father's intelligence, and yet also, disappointed with his father's difficulty in adapting to country life; Joseph's near disastrous hunting sessions with Uncle Jules are a source of dismay for young Marcel.

My Mother's Castle, like My Father's Glory is endearing, with childhood recollections seemingly too flawless to have even occurred. Marcel's mother is a simple home-loving woman, who organizes the family's weekly outings to the country. Marcel Pagnol's outlook on his childhood is picturesque – his boyhood in the country enthralling. There is no difficult situation that cannot be easily solved, the children are always near perfect – their clothes spotless, the family sits down to typical family celebrations with all the Mediterranean dishes of sunny Provence. With all its magic and wonder, an adult Marcel contemplates, “such is the life of man, moments of joy obliterated by unforgettable sorrow. There's no need to tell children that.” My Mother's Castle, unlike its prequel, presents passing moments of the deep agonizing pains children don't usually feel until they grow up - Marcel is getting farther and farther away from his childhood.

Both film's are sentimental, to be sure, but childhood's are often looked back on with rose-colored glasses. These films are meant to be the entrancing recollections of a young boy's summer life and weekends with his mother. They are the brief, narrow glances of youth before such fleeting joys are ultimately lost.

Yves Robert's tributes to Pagnol were beloved in France and despite some of the sentiment, it is easy to see why. Thankfully, both films are available separately on DVD.

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