One of the great filmmakers from the early sound era was Marcel Pagnol, a successful playwright who saw talkies as the next evolutionary step in the dramatic arts. He learned the trade of filmmaking by watching Alexander Korda direct Marius (1931) which had been a big hit for Pagnol on the Paris stage. In 1934, Pagnol started directing his own films, including Angéle.
The first in a long, successful series of collaborations with writer Jean Giono, Angèle introduces what would become common themes and characters in Pagnol’s work.
The title character is played by Orane Demazis (who played the heroine in Marius and several other films by Pagnol). She’s a lonely country girl who gets flattered by a boring local boy, and seduced by a bored young traveler who’s just passing through. Like many of Pagnol’s heroines, Angèle finds herself pregnant and unmarried (what the French call fille-mére, or more colorfully, mére celibataire). Her stern father is appalled and banishes her from their home.
Some time later, the family’s loyal hired hand, Saturnin (played by Fernandel, a great comic actor who would continue to work with Pagnol), goes to visit Angèle in the city. She is now living and working in a whorehouse, ashamed of her fate but resigned to it.
Saturnin lovingly convinces Angèle to return home, but her father is still ashamed of her, so he keeps her and the bastard child locked in the room below the barn. If the neighbors found out about her, he’d die of shame, or so he believes. Angèle’s mother and Saturnin don’t dare question the authority of Angèle’s father.
A season has passed, and the boring-but-decent local boy who flattered Angèle is still thinking about her. He hears a rumor that she has returned, and he sends his friend to hire on at the farm to see what he can learn. In spite of the father’s best efforts, they discover Angèle and hear her story. The local boy doesn’t care about the “dishonor,” so with Angèle’s permission, he rescues her from the family prison and takes her away to start a new life.
But before the night is over, the young man’s moral compass points him back to the farm, and in spite of the possible consequences, he asks Angèle’s father’s blessing on their union.
Rough around the Edges
Angèle is not as good as many of Pagnol’s other films. It’s pretty long, at 130 minutes, and some of the filmmaking is still rough around the edges.
But Pagnol’s refusal to treat anyone as a villain is refreshing. The overbearing father is not evil; he’s a tragic figure who doesn’t realize what he’s losing by trying to preserve the family honor. The bored biological father seems a cad, but Pagnol makes him earn Angèle’s affection by showing genuine tenderness.
As in almost all of Pagnol’s work, the conflict is a sticky, messy situation, brought about not through villainy, but through understandable mistakes and stubborn hangups. Though there may be a happy ending, the characters are somewhat damaged by the conflict. Still, the characters blaze a trail through it with good intentions and kind hearts.
Though there are many sets, the film also showcases the dry, mountainous countryside around Marseilles that later became a sort of trademark for Pagnol. He would often tell his cameraman not to gratuitously show the landscape, but by merely shooting the film on location, one can’t help but be impressed by the deep love of the land that the cast and crew clearly felt on almost all of Pagnol’s films.
Lucky to See
If you live in Boulder, you can see Angèle by renting their VHS copy at The Video Station. (You can probably buy the tape from Kino’s web site, too.) The transfer is pretty bad. The frame jumps and stutters, and the image detail is pretty muddy. But until some revival house (Criterion? Kino? Facets? Milestone? Anybody?) restores Angèle and releases it on DVD, you’ll be lucky even to see it.