Saturday, April 4, 2009

The best French language films - part 5: 'Jean de Florette' and 'Manon des Sources'

Be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3, and part 4 of the series.

I would rather discuss these films without giving away too much, because part of the beauty of the films, particularly Manon des Sources, are the plot's twists and revealed secrets. I'm revisiting these French language films mostly as an introduction, though I don't mind a discussion in the comments section with spoilers.

I think it's impossible to watch Jean de Florette without immediately watching its sequel Manon des Sources (Manon of the Spring). In many ways I don't consider the storyline to be made up of two different films – rather, I see the events as part of an extended film with a brief intermission. Both were filmed over a duration of approximately 30 weeks, and were released within a few months of each other in 1986, much like another adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's work. Directed by Claude Berri, (who passed away in January) both films are based on famed French writer, Marcel Pagnol's two novels, which combined, are entitled L'Eau des Collines (The Water of the Hills). The historical dramas are set in Pagnol's beloved Provence, during the 1920s. Both films are painful and tragic, yet while Jean de Florette will break your heart, Manon des Sources - though no less heartbreaking, leaves the audience with an ending that is far more satisfying.

The first film, Jean de Florette, presents the audience with the story of César Soubeyran (Yves Montand) often referred to as 'Le Papet', or 'grandfather' among the locals. César, played brilliantly by Montand in one of his last roles, is a greedy and affluent farm owner of the French countryside. His nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), a repulsive, dim-witted young man, is César's only remaining family member. Despite Ugolin's flaws, César guides him and attempts to steer Ugolin towards wealth, status, and a family in order to preserve the fading Soubeyran line. Ugolin presents a plan to his uncle to grow carnations, and César, realizing how lucrative the venture will be is satisfied with his nephew's plan. Unfortunately, carnations cannot grow in the dry climate of Provence. But, ever the schemer, César knows of a neighboring spring that can put an end to their troubles. To ensure that the owner of the spring will voluntarily sell the land, César and Ugolin obstruct the spring to render the land utterly useless. The new owner, a hunchback named Jean Cadoret (Gérard Depardieu), is the son of Florette (one of César's old lovers) who, along with his wife (Elisabeth Depardieu) and daughter Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna) wants to keep his inherited property and live off the land. In order to convince Jean to sell his land, Ugolin becomes his friend, but complying with his uncle César's wishes, never reveals the spring that could keep Jean's futile dream alive. What unfolds after these events is almost unbearable, with Jean desperately trying to find water to keep his farm alive during a drought. The betrayal is almost unimaginable.

Despite the dark subject matter, Jean de Florette is a rather cheerful, almost hopeful film. This is largely due to Jean – portrayed magnificently by an exuberant Depardieu – who believes that his goal will ultimately be fulfilled. It is his waning confidence during the drought that drives the story.

Manon des Sources begins some ten years later with Jean's beautiful daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart ) living in near isolation as a shepherdess outside of town. Ugolin is till unwed, much to his uncle's disappointment, but soon, by chance, Ugolin falls in love with Manon. Disgusted, she refuses his advances and finds herself falling in love with Bernard Olivier (Hippolyte Girardot) who has just arrived in town. It's hard to discuss the rest of the plot in great detail without spoiling most of the ending, but the film's payoff is both shocking, and heartbreaking – it all plays out like a Greek tragedy.

Both films, Jean de Florette in particular, are near perfect films. This is mostly due to the cast's and Berri's ability to make each character – even the most villainous – into a human being. Even the most innocent character, Manon, does something cruel.

For anyone who is not used to foreign films and subtitles, the four hour run of these films will seem daunting. I first watched both films in my early teens, and I've always felt that my patience was worthwhile. You will never regret taking the time to see them. Both Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources are available on DVD, either separately or together in a box set.

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  3. Good review--I'll recommend it to others. I managed to see the paired films on the big screen in Seattle, about as soon as they were released in English ('86 or '87). Have watched them many times since on the little screen. They represent one of the summits of recent French culture, as far as I'm concerned.