First of two parts, this Sunday and next, this is my only Box Set to consist of just two films, and the last but one of my foreign films (you are going to be so surprised when I get to the last one). Like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, this film and it’s other part, Manon des Sources are really a single film, divided into multiple parts due to its length.
The two films, which were shot together over seven months after a year of careful preparation bearing ample fruit, are classics, not merely of French cinema but of cinema itself. Jean de Florette stars Yves Montand (in one of his last roles), Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteil, in a role that transformed his career. The cast is small, the only other parts of significance taken by Depardieu’s wife Elizabeth, and Ernestine Mazurowna as the nine year old girl, Manon.
Originally, the story was created by Marcel Pagnol, filmmaker, dramatist and novellist, as a four hour film in 1953, under the Manon des Sources title. Unhappy at how it was treated, Pagnol turned the story into two novels, with Jean de Florette as an extended scene-setting. Director Claude Berri treated rhe books faithfully and the outcome is worthy of all the praise that’s been heaped upon it since the films appeared in 1986.
When I was at School, in the Sixties, and studying Death of a Salesman in English, I was introduced to the classical definition of tragedy as the fall of aperson in a high posotion. Tragedy, true tragedy, could come only from the lives of Kings and Gods and Heroes, for only in the descent from elevation could tragedy be found. Willy Loman was the antithetis of a high person, and so his story had to be qualified as a ‘domestic’ tragedy. Jean de Florette is characterised as a ‘period’ tragedy, set in Provence in the South of France, in a meticulously recreated early Twenties, after the Great War. Nobody in it could be characterised as High in any way, save perhaps, in an ironic manner that is not realised until the very end of the second film, the character of Le Papet, or grandfather, Cesar Soubeyrand, played by Montand, paterfamilias of a dying family whose ambition to restore his family’s local prestige, its honour, and its life is the driving force of both stories.
But the films are tragedies on any level that the human heart operates, in their depiction of human failings: love, greed, obsession, hope, ambition, pride, insularity and the insistence upon seeing what one wants to see.
Jean de Florette begins with the return from the war of Ugolin Soubeyrand (Auteil, cast against his previous superficial, urban type and a revelation). Ugolin is, we slowly understand, the last of the Soubeyrand family, his only relation his Uncle Cesar, Papet. He’s a youngish man, but an ugly one, and slow of thought. Yet he’s smart enough to com up with the idea of making his tiny mountainside farm pay by growing carnations. Papet, intially dismissive, is convinced by Ugolin’s sales that the affair can be profitable. And with profit comes pride and, most important in Papet’s eyes, a wife, and children, and the continuation of the Soubeyrand line.
Ugolin is less concerned. He has an account at a local brothel, half an hour a month and choice of all the girls takes care of all his needs. But Papet knows that to ensure the continuation of the line, Ugolin needs to expand. For this he will need water, and there is a spring on the neighbouring land of Pique-Bouffige, half-choked though it is. But Pique-Bouffige has his own pride, and a spite towards the Soubeyrands, and will not sell. Angered at the insults, Papet drags him from a tree, throws him and accidentally kills him.
This is the opportunity. With peasant wiliness, Papet and Ugolin plan to block the spring, to render the land next to worthless and buy it cheap when, as it must, it comes up for auction. But their plans are thwarted. Pique-Bouffige’s only relation is Florette, his sister, with whom Papet was once close. She married when he was in military hospital in Algeria, moved away. Papet has never married.
Florette, we learn, has died the days news came of her brother’s death. She leaves a son, a tax collector and, what is worse, a hunchback, against whom there is instinctive prejudice, believing them to be cursed by God. He is city-bred, he will sell. But he does not: Jean Cadoret, who in the local parlance would be called Jean de Florette, John of Florette, John of the Flowers, has a dream of living in the country, of providing for himself and his family, his wife Aimee, a former opera singer, and their daughter Manon, named after her favourite role.
Jean is Depardieu, and one look at him signals to you that tragedy is inevitable. Jean is honest, open, enthusiastic, ambitious, but he is a dreamer who has not a morsel of the practical knowledge of the Provence peasantry, the farmers who tear their living out of the land. But Jean has hope and manuals and calculations that will make him self-sufficient and rich.
Just one look. The city clothes. The bowler hat, the long, buttoned down town coat, the cane, the gloves he wears to carry out the repairs, the digging, the planting, the tending of the kitchen garden that he knows will feed them, the ambitious plans for a rabbit farm that will not be allowed to get out of hand and strip the country, like Australia.
Oh, Jean is a comic cut, with his honest belief in the goodwill of his neighbour, Ugolin, who encourages him and helps and watches him carefully. Ugolin, whom Aimee does not like, nor does Manon, whom Jean gently reprimands. It is not Ugolin who is ugly but Manin’s thoughts when she says so.
And the Soubeyrands watch and gloat. The spring is dammed, they have dammed it. No-one will tell Jean because they have isolated him from anyone who might tell him, isolated beyond what he has already done, bringing in food from outside, being an outsider, bearing that hump.
It takes two years, but the inevitable has patience. A heatwave. The constant trips to the distant spring in the heat that is an even money bet will kill Jean or the mule first. The increasing dependece upon wine. The decreasing inheritance. Ugolin, who despite himself and Papet’s sneers, likes Jean, softens to the point of offering to buy the farm, only for Jean to use the valuation as a basis for a mortgage: money to dig a well, to revive the farm, to pay things off in twelve months. Fatally, the mortgage money is offered by Papet.
It cannot be postponed forever. The well hits bedrock. Jean dynamites the rock. in his eagerness to see the water gush forth like some Arizonan oilwell, he runs in too soon and is hit by falling rock. He dies on his kitchen table. Ugolin reports the dath, the culmination of the plot to Papet. He insists that he is not crying, it is only his eyes that are crying.
The mortgage is foreclosed. After repayments, fees and interest, Aimee will have 3,880 francs on which to bring up Manon. They leave the farm. But the Soubeyrands are impatient, Papet is impatient. They unblock the spring too soon, the water bubbling up, not gushing but still intense. Manon has followed them into the brush, has seen the water, has understood. She runs away, shrieking, a sound Papet mistakes for a buzzard killing, a metaphor that will return most aptly. Little Ernestine puts something in her face you wouldn’t imagine a child could know. Fin de Premiere Parte.
The story is incomplete, but it has drawn up lines and, like railway tracks, the people are not free to go where they choose. These lines will lead only to one place, driven by a family’s name and the risks attendant upon cunning and an overweening pride. Jean de Florette died upn the altar of his own pride, too blind at his ambition to understand just how ill-suited he was for his chosen future, yet such a simple thing as access to water could, no, would have seen him reached his own romantic ideal of the promised land.
And before this story plays out to a conclusion whose dimensions have already been concealed in the details we already know, we will understand just how much of a tragedy this already is.
I can’t praise this film highly enough. It is acted beautifully, naturally, with a total conviction in all its parts. The Provencal countryside is both beautiful and harsh, and the film’s extended shooting time enabled all aspects of it to be seen, even to the golden duststorm of the sirocco. Though this was made in 1986, it is so exact as to its period that there isn’t a sense of age to it: it owes nothing to the time of its making and is as immediate as it was so long ago. Time cannot touch it, it cannot wither or stale.
And this is only half a film. I am already eager for next Sunday.