The French author, playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol is best known to Americans for the twin film adaptations Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, which both came out in 1986. Based on these, one could be forgiven for mistaking Pagnol, considered by some the Dickens of early 20th century France, as a heavy tragedian. These people shall be taken aback by the relative frivolity of The Well-Digger’s Daughter, adapted and directed by Florette/Manon co-star Daniel Auteuil, who also plays the well-digger Pascal. The story involves war, unwanted pregnancy, paternal rejection, class warfare and (alleged) death. Tragedy is, ultimately, avoided, and the tone is relentlessly pastoral.
Indeed, like Dickens, Pagnol was even better at endless hang-out scenes than at clean, overarching narratives. Much of The Well-Digger’s Daughter, which Pagnol himself directed in 1940 - during the French Occupation, no less - finds characters doing little more than conversing. Basic exposition and the machinations of the plot woven into these chat-a-thons, which also serve to tone down the potential severity of the story: young Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), the eldest daughter of Auteuil’s 50-something blue-collar Pascal, finds herself knocked up by wealthy scion Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle). Patricia finds herself rejected by all: by Jacques, who goes off to WWI, by Jacques’ snooty parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Sabine Azéma) and by Pascal, who considers the unwanted child an abomination.
Some have complained about the antiquated mores, as though it was up to Auteuil to update (and betray) a decades-old source. But it’s clear that Pagnol doesn’t justify Pascal’s disavowment of his daughter, even as he offers him the respect to justify his actions in a long, civil dialogue scene. Indeed, Pagnol is one of the great humanists, who understands the cruelties of man while dreaming of a utopia where social law is finally cast to the wind. Everything works out in The Well-Digger’s Daughter, putting it more in line with Pagnol’s loose Fanny Trilogy, which was filmed in France in the early ‘30s and which is presently being filmed again by Auteuil. As a first-time director, Auteuil doesn’t yet have the chops he has as an actor, although he’s already had the smarts to not again cast Bergès-Frisbey, whose wooden turn is Daughter’s lone liability.
Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev’s latest is didactic, but like the best didactic filmmaking, it functions even better as classical moral drama.