The winds of Var: The Well Digger’s Daughter ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 21, 2012)

There is an unbilled co-star stealing nearly every scene in the latest film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel, La Fille du puisatier; it’s the immutable breeze that rustles the verdant forests, fields and groves of France’s Provence region.

It’s no coincidence that this is the  same intoxicating locale that informed two of the most acclaimed Pagnol film adaptations, Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. It’s also no coincidence that the first-time director overseeing The Well Digger’s Daughter is veteran actor Daniel Auteuil, who played  one of the major characters in Berri’s 1986 diptych.

Auteuil casts himself as the father of the eponymous young woman. The story begins on the eve of WW I. Pascal is a working class widower with six daughters,  literally scraping to get by. His eldest, 18 year-old Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) has in essence filled her late mother’s shoes, selflessly devoting herself to attending to the welfare of her father and younger sisters.

Patricia is special in another way . When she was 6, a wealthy (and childless) Parisian woman on a countryside visit was so taken with the angelic young girl that she offered to take her back to the city and become her guardian. Seeing this as an opportunity for one of their daughters to have a shot at a better life, her parents agreed. But when her benefactor died, Patricia returned home at 15, now carrying herself with a certain air of refinement that set her apart from her peers.

Patricia’s trifecta of beauty, carriage and saintliness has certainly not been lost on at least two potential suitors. One is Felipe (Kad Merad). Felipe, a kindhearted bachelor in his mid-40s, is Pascal’s closest friend and sole employee (Merad’s characterization reminded me of Karl Malden’s turn as the quietly desperate, romantically awkward but well-meaning Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire).

When Felipe begins dropping not-so-subtle hints about his intentions, Pascal gives his blessing, mostly for pragmatic reasons; Felipe’s house is nearby, so he wouldn’t “lose” his beloved daughter, and it would be one less mouth for him to feed. Still, it would be up to Patricia, who, while fond of Felipe, has no romantic feelings for him.

Patricia’s introduction to her second suitor is straight out of Red Riding Hood. While cutting through unfamiliar woods one day to bring some lunch to her father and Felipe at their well dig, she encounters a somewhat over-confident (yet undeniably seductive) young man (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who introduces himself as the son of a local well-to-do store owner.

It’s love at first sight; although Patricia doesn’t realize it yet. By the time she does, the young man, a military pilot, is called to serve at the front, and she is left with a child on the way and a disappointed and conflicted father.

If that sounds like the setup for an old fashioned romantic melodrama, you would be 100% correct in that assumption. And I mean that in the best possible way (as I have never had an opportunity to see Pagnol’s own original 1940 film version, which doesn’t seem to be readily available on any home video format, I can’t address comparisons).

This is a magnificent “old fashioned romantic melodrama” in the tradition of Ryan’s Daughter; a beautifully acted, sensitively directed, emotionally resonant film, with lushly photographed scenery (by Betty Blue DP Jean-Francois Robin) that becomes a palpable character in the story.

Auteuil plays his Noble Peasant with a sense of aplomb that reminded me more than a little of Gerard Depardieu’s performance as the hunchback in Jean de Florette (I did have to chuckle though, when I recalled the late Pauline Kael’s droll assessment in her review: “…Depardieu wears ‘GOOD MAN’ in capital letters across his wide brow; in smaller letters we can read: ‘He has poetry in his soul.’).

As a bonus, Berges-Frisbey (radiantly lovely) and Duvauchelle (vibing the young Alain Delon)  make great eye candy. Tired of superheroes, aliens and car crashes? This is your cure for the summertime blues.

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