La Femme du boulanger (1938)

aka: The Baker's Wife
Comedy / Drama


La Femme du boulanger photo
The baker Aimable Castenet has recently settled into the small Provençal village of Sainte Cécile and soon makes himself popular with the locals with his delicious bread, the finest they have ever tasted. For generations, the inhabitants of the little village have been divided by petty squabbles, but they have no choice but to set aside their differences when the baker's young wife Aurélie elopes with Dominque, a handsome young shepherd. Devastated by this betrayal, Aimable finds he is incapable of making any bread and he is soon reduced to a drunken wreck of a man. His customers cannot bear to see the baker in this state, nor can they bear to go without their daily bread, so they agree to join forces in an attempt to reunite the baker and his wife. Even the local schoolteacher and country priest agree to call a truce, for the good of the community, and the well-being of their stomachs. But where is Aurélie, and can she ever be persuaded to return to her now completely derelict husband?
© 2012

Film Review

After his celebrated Marseille Trilogie, the best known and most popular of Marcel Pagnol's films has to be La Femme du boulanger, an engaging modern fable which exemplifies not only its author's skill as a filmmaker but also his extraordinary compassion for his fellow man, together with a well-developed understanding of human nature.
Film pic 1
The film was not only a major hit in France, it was also hugely popular in the United States, one of the few French films to be both a critical and commercial success in America in the 1930s. The film won the New York City Critics Circle Award for the best foreign film in 1940 and Orson Welles was so impressed by the film that once he had seen it he cited its star, Raimu, as the greatest actor in the world. La Femme du boulanger offers a portrait of Provençal life that is both ironic and affectionate, humorous and poignant, and is easily one of Marcel Pagnol's most accessible and rewarding films.

The story is taken from one of the anecdotes recounted by Jean Giono in his 1932 novel Jean le Bleu. This is the last time Pagnol would take his inspiration from Giono; previously he had adapted three of his novels for his film Jofroi (1933), Angèle (1934) and Regain (1937). Pagnol had originally intended the part of the baker for the actor Marcel Maupi, one of his regular troupe of performers.
Film pic 2
It was Maupi who suggested that the role was ideal for Raimu, who had previously triumphed in the stage and screen productions of Pagnol's Marseille Trilogy. As the baker whose world is turned inside out by his wife's infidelity, Raimu turns in one of his greatest performances, one that nimbly wavers between farce and pathos, conveying with a harrowing sense of reality the abject desolation of a man who has lost everything.

For the part of the baker's wife, Pagnol considered hiring the American actress Joan Crawford; he even took account of the fact that she could speak no French by reducing her dialogue in his screenplay to the absolute minimum. However, Raimu convinced the director that Ginette Leclerc, then a comparatively unknown actress, would be a better choice for the role. It was through this film that Leclerc became a major star of French cinema in the late 1930s and early 1940s, winning last fame for her portrayal of the sinister-looking hypochondriac in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau (1943).
Film pic 3
Other notable names in the cast list include Pagnol regulars Charpin, perfectly chosen for the role of the self-important marquis, and Édouard Delmont, who is hilarious as the chatty fisherman who cannot recount a single incident of his day without narrating his entire life story. Robert Bassac and Robert Vattier form an amusing double act as the constantly bickering schoolteacher and priest, the former clearly modelled on Pagnol's own atheistic father.

In common with all of Marcel Pagnol's films, La Femme du boulanger was partially filmed on location in sunny Provence, something that gives it a distinctive Provençal character that sets it apart from the studio-bound productions being made in Paris at the time. The exterior locations for the film were provided by Castelet, a small village near to the Provençal town of Bandol, 30 km to the southeast of Marseille, a region now internationally renowned for its wines. Not only does the location add to the film's charm and realism, it also provides it with its best visual gag - the sequence in which the schoolmaster is forced to give a piggyback ride to his archenemy, the priest - the former is the only one who knows the safe way across an area of marshland, the latter the only one who can convince the baker's wife to return to her husband.
Film pic 4
This seemingly innocent excursion into farce underscores the central moral of the film: faith must always be tempered by realism, and vice versa. Without the teacher's practical knowledge, the priest will never be able to cross the marsh; and without the priest's faith in human nature, the baker will surely have lost his wife forever. Faith without reason makes a man a fool - as the baker demonstrates with his blind faith in his wife - but reason without faith leaves us completely without hope.

After WWII, Pagnol developed a stage play from his script for the film, although he staged only one performance of the play. In 1985, Jérôme Savary directed a theatrical production of the play, with Michel Galabru in the role of the baker. Roger Hanin took the principal role in a version of the play directed by Nicolas Ribowski for French television in 1998. Galabru reprised the role in a live broadcast of the play for French television in December 2010, performed at the Théatre Hebertot in Paris and directed by Alain Sachs. Bizarrely, given that it is one of the great classics of French cinema, Pagnol's original film has yet to make it onto DVD. La Femme du boulanger is a masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered.
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The director Marcel Pagnol also worked with the actor Fernand Charpin on the films Le Gendre de Monsieur Poirier (1933), César (1936) and Le Schpountz (1938).

Film Credits

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