Spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know what happens in these films, don’t read on.
For those of you who are fed up with my going on about Corsica – and I haven’t finished yet – here’s something more in my usual vein. Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources are two films but together they make one story.
They are probably my second favourite film(s) of all time. My absolute favourite is Joseph Losey’s film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with Ruggero Raimondi, Kiri Te Kanawa and Edda Moser. Everything about it is wonderful. But it’s not French, so it has no place on this blog, alas. Actually, the historical Don Juan was of Corsican descent but that’s another story.
Directed by the late Claude Berri, Jean and Manon came out in 1986. The screenplay was adapted from the novels by Marcel Pagnol. However, it was Pagnol himself who filmed Manon in 1953 before writing the novels, so they are a rare example of a film that became a book.
The story is set in the early 1920s in Provence not far from Aubagne, where Pagnol was born. A tax inspector – everyone calls him le bossu, the hunchback – from Marseille, Jean Cadoret, inherits a dilapidated farmhouse in the hills. He leaves his job to live the good life with his wife and small daughter, Manon. Two crafty peasants, uncle and nephew, are interested in the property because they covet its water source. They block up the source, of which Jean is unaware, hoping that he will give up and sell them the place at a knock-down price.
Jean’s grandiose plans to rear a special breed of rabbit go awry when his small citerne dries up in the summer drought and he has to transport water by donkey from another, distant source. He tries to excavate a well with illicit dynamite but kills himself in the process. His wife is forced to sell the property to the peasants who begin cultivating carnations in its rich soil and earn a fortune.
The second film, Manon des Sources, is set around 10 years later. The eponymous Manon discovers that the peasants concealed the source from her father and takes her revenge against the odds. The nephew, Ugolin, commits suicide and the uncle, known as Papet, dies of grief when he discovers that le bossu was his son. Manon gets the farmhouse, the fortune and the handsome village schoolmaster.
Claude Berri’s films included a star-studded cast: the ubiquitous Gérard Dépardieu was good as Jean; the matchless Yves Montand was excellent as the scheming Papet; but Daniel Auteuil was superb as the imbecile nephew, Ugolin, who falls hopelessly in love with the unattainable Manon, played by a very young Emmanuel Béart. Apparently, Berri originally planned to cast Coluche* as Ugolin. With all respect to Coluche, I think he would have been miscast.
*French comic who launched Les Restos du Coeur and died in an accident 25 years ago last week.
Jean and Manon were filmed together over a period of about nine months in 1985. At the time, the two films were the most expensive French films ever made. They were a huge commercial success and Daniel Auteuil won a well-deserved BAFTA award for his performance. They did much to put Provence on the map as a tourist destination: the landscape itself has a personality that almost dwarfs those of the characters in the films.
Pagnol’s own film of Manon (1953) wasn’t a patch on Berri’s. It was the epoch when everyone in French films shouted at the tops of their voices. Pagnol cast his wife, Jaqueline, as Manon and miscast some ancient buffoon as the shrewd and calculating uncle. His original film was four hours long but his distributor cut it, much to his chagrin. I’d say the distributor did everyone a service: I still couldn’t sit through it all.
By contrast, the Pagnol novels are well worth reading. They are available in English in one volume entitled The Water of the Hills or, of course, in two volumes in the original French.
I have seen both films so many times that I know the dialogue by heart. In fact, I annoy the SF by reciting it along with the film. That reminds me, it’s a while since I last watched them. The next rainy day…
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