Loyal readers (hi mom!) might remember that I have written extensively about Marcel Pagnol, who made films about Provençal peasants and tradesmen 80 years ago. Pagnol kept coming back to the theme of the ” fille mère ” — the unwed mother, and the pinnacle of his fille mère films is The Well-Digger’s Daughter.
Recently, French actor (now director) Daniel Auteuil has made a faithful adaptation. In a vacuum, the original and the remake might be equally good. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and in 2012, Auteuil’s The Well-Digger’s Daughter feels like a quaint costume drama. Pagnol’s version, in the context of its times and his career, meant so much more.
How the title character comes to be with child is charming, naïve, dramatically unexpected, but not all that unusual in hindsight. The title character is Patricia, played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (the 1945 version starred Pagnol’s wife, Josette Day). Bergès-Frisbey was in her mid-twenties while shooting, but she plays much younger. Patricia is of an age where she is old enough to flirt, but young enough to be surprised and hurt by the winds of fate.
Patricia is the daughter of Pascal Amoretti (played by director Auteuil — the original role was played by Pagnol’s favorite collaborator, Raimu). Pascal and his assistant Félipe (Kad Merad — originally played by the great comic actor Fernandel) are blasting a well when we meet them. They are probably not as old as they look; they have earned their silver and thinning hair with sweat, hard labor, and sun. Pascal’s wife died after the birth of their fifth daughter, and Patricia, the second oldest, has stepped up to run the household.
Félipe is an old bachelor who would like to court Patricia. He’s just about the only person — including the audience — who thinks it could work. Nevertheless, she accompanies him to the air show because Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle)— that dashing boy whose father runs the general store — might be there, flying a plane.
In Pagnol’s excellent script, Jacques and Patricia contrive to sneak away from Félipe for a few hours, to Jacques’ bedroom. The implication is a little shocking. After all, they’ve only just met. In fact, Pagnol lets us know that Patricia does not give in and that Jacques apologizes, returning her intact to Félipe, who will drive her home.
Ah, but Fate has a plan. Félipe’s car won’t start, and if he doesn’t get Patricia home soon, his boss and friend Pascal will assume the worst about them. So in order to preserve Patricia’s reputation, he sends her home with his old friend Jacques the pilot. The single shot of an empty motorcycle next to a shady spot tells us all we need to know.
In 2012, it’s a little hard to relate to the moral prohibition against unwed mothers. If you have seen Pagnol’s earlier films — notably Fanny, Marius, and Cesar, you might recognize the shock, dismay, and shame that went along with being pregnant out of wedlock in that era. Nowadays, the idea that a father might evict his daughter over a little thing like that seems quaint.
The same story told in 1946 seems more immediate. In fact, what makes Pagnol’s fille-mère films so poignant is that this most natural of human conditions — pregnancy — could bring such pain to so well-meaning people. What makes The Well-Digger’s Daughter the best of the fille-mère films is the tragic and dramatic irony that comes next (spoiler alert, of course).
First of all, Pascal marches Patricia over to the parents of Jacques, who is now away at war, to explain the situation. He’s offering them the chance to step up and do the honorable thing, perhaps promise an engagement on behalf of their son when he returns. Jacques’ parents, M. and Mme Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Sabine Azéma — M. Mazel was played by Charpin in the original) don’t see Pascal’s visit in the same light. They see a dressed-up redneck and his hussy daughter asking for child support, so they send the Amoretti family away. The ironic coup de grace, of course, is that Jacques gets shot down over Germany, and the Mazel’s only heir is the one they sent away in shame, just like Pascal did with Patricia.
Shame in the Era of Lady Gaga
Auteuil’s film is a faithful adaptation, and it is good. It’s his directorial debut, and the IMDB says he intends to follow it up with Fanny, Marius, and Cesar, recasting himself in Raimu’s role, and Darrousin in Charpin’s from those films. Auteuil got his start in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, two other films written by Pagnol, so if anyone is the right man for the job, it’s him. Yet there isn’t as much power in this film as there is in its ancestor.
Some artists make the same art again and again. Painters and composers repeat themselves stylistically, yet keep creating original works. Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu made family dramas his whole life, yet his films, like Pagnol’s, never bore their audiences with repetition. For Pagnol, The Well-Digger’s Daughter was the best example of something he had been working on for an entire career. A remake, even a great one, will lack the lifelong dedication that went into an original.
Given that Auteuil is not Pagnol, he manages to make as pleasing a film as is possible. He starts by respecting the source material, letting the writing and the characters pop off the screen with their well-observed quirks. Pascal, for example, can’t bring himself to ask his daughter to come back home — he can’t even admit to himself that he wants her to. But gosh darn it if he doesn’t trot out every excuse he can think of why she ought to move back home even though he “doesn’t want her to.”
Alexander Deplat provides a very filmic score. It’s appropriately slow and minor, but subdued. The production designer did a better job with the Amoretti’s costumes — which look suitably sweaty, dusty, and lived-in — than with the planes, trains, and automobiles, and sometimes even the locations, which sometimes look too well-preserved. The opening cinematography has a golden glow that makes Provence look gorgeous. In all cases — the score, the photography, and the production design, I might have preferred a dirtier, simpler, more rural approach. It might have helped audiences forget that we live in the era of Lady Gaga. When the modern leaks in, it can make the setting seem quaint or precious.
If you’ve never seen Pagnol’s work, you might enjoy a Sunday matinee of The Well-Digger’s Daughter. Just know that it had much more power 70 years ago. For my tastes, I would rather see the original again. Nevertheless, I eagerly await Auteuil’s Fanny, Marius, and Cesar.