La Fille du puisatier (2011)

aka: The Well Digger's Daughter
Drama / Romance


La Fille du puisatier photo
Whilst taking a lunch basket to her father, a well-digger, Patricia comes across Jacques Mazel, a handsome young man. She is an innocent girl of 18; he is a fighter pilot who is eight years her senior. When they next meet, by moonlight, they surrender to their desires. Patricia is heartbroken when Jacques does not keep their next rendezvous - he has been sent back to the war. When Patricia discovers she is pregnant, she cannot prevent herself from telling Jacques' wealthy parents that she is carrying his child. Convinced that Patricia seeks to dupe them and extort money, the Mazels send her away empty handed. But when Jacques goes missing and is thought to have been killed in action, his parents adopt a very different attitude...
© 2012

Film Review

Film poster
A quarter of a century after he first found an international following through his portrayal of the tragically fated flower grower Ugolin in Claude Berri's popular Provençal diptych Jean de Florette / Manon des Sources (1986), Daniel Auteuil once again immerses himself in the picturesque world of Marcel Pagnol, this time assuming the role of both director and lead actor. Having grown up in Provence, Auteuil has a deeply rooted affinity for both the region and the works of its most celebrated author, so his remake of Pagnol's 1940 classic film La Fille du puisatier is as much a celebration of Provençal life as it is a homage to what he considers to be one of the great works of French cinema. For his directing debut, Auteuil assembles a stellar cast and succeeds not only in capturing the essence of Provence, through some achingly beautiful photography, but also in making Pagnol's melodramatic story work its magic on a modern cinema audience.

La Fille du puisatier is the kind of archetypal French film that plays well both at home and abroad, luxuriating in a somewhat clichéd depiction of a peasant way of life that is both reassuring and idyllic, albeit highly romanticised. Yves Robert pulled off the same trick, and masterfully so, with his celebrated 1990 diptych - La Gloire de mon père / Le Chateau de ma mère, which offered an intensely evocative account of Marcel Pagnol's childhood memories. Twenty years on from that film, audiences appear not to have lost their appetite for saccharine-drizzled excursions into the lushly paradisiacal Provence of yesteryear, so whatever shortcomings Auteuil's film may have - and there are a few - his remake of Pagnol's wartime tearjerker will have no difficulty raking in the pennies at the box office.

Having only recently turned 60, Daniel Auteuil still enjoys the privilege of being one of French cinema's best known and best loved actors, so he is better qualified than most to step into the shoes of that other legendary performer Raimu for the lead part of the principled well-digger Pascal Amoretti, one of the more challenging roles in the Pagnol canon. Auteuil was never going to surpass Raimu's devastatingly poignant portrayal, but whilst his performance does occasionally veer towards unashamed bathos, he carries the part with conviction and charm. And who can fail to be moved by the closing scenes in which his character finally comes to realise the error of his ways?  When it comes to unblocking the tear ducts, Daniel Auteuil has few serious competitors these days.

Kad Merad is a far less obvious choice for the role of the well-digger's gauche young assistant, a part that had gone to the iconic comic actor Fernandel in Pagnol's original film. Merad's amiable, outgoing persona makes the perfect complement to Auteuil's austere and introspective Amoretti, and whilst the actor may lack Fernandel's innate aptitude for playing the world's unluckiest lover, he is surprisingly effective in the role. Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Sabine Azéma provide some entertainment value as the bourgeois couple who end up being dragged kicking and screaming across the class divide when Fate delivers them a particularly nasty turn, whilst Spanish-born ingénue Astrid Berges-Frisbey proves to be the film's biggest revelation, showing great promise as the eponymous daughter, Patricia. The only possible misjudgement on the casting front is Nicolas Duvauchelle for the part of Patricia's over-zealous lover - admittedly the character is not meant to be entirely sympathetic, but Duvauchelle makes him so unremittingly unlikeable that the film's later scenes suffer as a result.

On the directing front, Auteuil conceals his lack of experience remarkably well and avoids most of the pitfalls that many first-time directors fall into. Admittedly, there is nothing strikingly innovative in his mise-en-scène and at times you feel that he is playing things a little too much by the book when the film could have benefited from a more daring approach, if only to shake the dust off the old stock clichés. The location scenes are certainly attractive to look at, but again these are shot in such a conventional and predictable manner that the narrative scarcely has the opportunity to breathe. Having made this film, Auteuil has intimated that he intends remaking several other Marcel Pagnol films, including the famous Marseille Trilogy. Pagnol's stories still have an extraordinary appeal, offering today's generation a welcome retreat into a kind of rural Narnia for disenchanted grown-ups, a place where life is so much simpler and where men and women dance to the tunes of capricious nature rather than the dead drumbeat of today's soulless materialism. On the strength of this first delightful offering, Daniel Auteuil's subsequent directorial outings into Pagnol country could be something to savour.
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The director Daniel Auteuil also worked with the actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin on the films Fanny (2013) and Marius (2013).

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