Review: The Well-Digger’s Daughter
March 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
French filmmaker and novelist Marcel Pagnol is best known in our country for the movie couplet of “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of Spring,” which brought celebrated French actors Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Yves Montand together.
Those films, both released in 1986 and shot back-to-back, were historical dramas reminiscent of 19th century novels like “Tess d’Urbervilles” and “Jane Eyre” – romantic, suspenseful, sweeping.
They were, most importantly, not directed by Pagnol at all, but Claude Berri. Berri’s films were based on the 1964 novels of Pagnol’s titled “L’eau des collines,” which was itself based on Pagnol’s 1952 film, “Manon des Sources.”
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter (La Fille du Puisatier)” does not have such a complicated lineage – it’s based on Pagnol’s 1940 romantic comedy of the same name and it brings Auteuil back to the Pagnol fold, fulfilling multiple roles as actor, screenwriter and director. It’s a far cry from the 80s films in tone, but Auteuil works similar themes – how a young girl’s misfortunes in life affects an old man.
Patricia (Astrid Bergès Frisbey, who starred in last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) is the cultured daughter of a common well-digger, Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil).
The tale of her rise and fall in society involves a desperate house of girls and rich woman from Paris, who “borrows” the oldest daughter for a number of years to give her a better life. Returning home at age 14 after the death of her mother, Patricia’s lot in life is to become the keeper of the house and family, attending to her father’s needs and raising her sisters.
Of course, such a creature captures the attention of hopeful men in the village.
One, Félipe (Kad Merad), is the kind-hearted well-digging partner of Pascal, who hints at interest in Patricia’s hand in marriage. The other, Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is the son of the local wealthy shopkeeper. The two men are casual friends and, rather than create animosity, their dual interest in Patricia creates a long-term compassion when World War I intrudes on all their lives and frames everyone’s futures in a way no one expects on deployment day.
At center of the action, though, is Pascal, the feisty father who has supported his family for years on his own and is constantly seeking some value for his tarnished ego. Girls, it is made note, do not pass on the father’s name, and Pascal’s shame is wrapped up in that notion – what has he actually passed onto the world without a son? In this situation, Patricia functions as a silent cypher for her father’s insecurity and rage, but also a healing angel – his words, not mine – who will eventually calm his soul, and also see that other men are not beaten down with the same, old world shame.
This is an old-fashioned story that does not try to retrofit the attitudes of the times or the gender roles it depicts for a modern audience. Though with some bursts, the male ego is at center, the women are catalysts to action that often take a seat to the histrionics of men, and this all gives Auteuil a palette not only for the an examination of male dominance over women’s lives, but a remarkably spirited performance of his own to illustrate the complications and scars of a patriarchal system.