Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Auteuil Remakes Pagnol: The Well-Digger’s Daughter

Class, social convention, and World War I are powerful forces aligned against a young woman’s happiness.  Yet, she may eventually find her place in a world changing faster than she realizes in lead actor-director-screen adaptor Daniel Auteuil’s respectful remake of Marcel Pagnol’s The Well-Digger’s Daughter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Pascal Amoretti digs and repairs wells.  It is hard but honest work, still quite necessary in the early Twentieth Century southern French provinces.  The widower was blessed and cursed with a brood of six girls.  Old Amoretti has come to rely on the eldest, Patricia, to manage his household, but she has reached marriageable age.  A match with his smitten older employee Felipe Rambert would suit the working class patriarch nicely, but Patricia’s has eyes only for Jacques Mazel, the dashing young officer son of the town’s well-to-do hardware merchant.

Despite knowing the impossibility of their affair, the young woman loses her head with the military aviator the night before he ships out to the front.  When Mazel is reported missing-in-action not long after, the pregnant Amoretti must face her shame alone.  Mazel’s parents certainly are not interested in acknowledging the girl and her traditional father is at loss, unable to see around society’s constraints.

The thing about Digger though is that the fallen Amoretti’s fortunes are not set in stone.  People will rise to the occasion and redeem themselves.  Though the village gossips would hardly put it in such terms, hers really is a story of virtue rewarded.  How she gets there will be quite the trick.  Chocked full of tearful confrontations and convenient revelations, Digger could have easily descended into sentimental treacle, but first-time helmer Auteuil keeps it all concretely grounded in the characters’ natural and social environments.

Already a favorite of the Pagnol estate after his career-making performances in Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Auteuil is reportedly already developing more Pagnol projects.  As the painfully dignified and conflicted father, he sets the tone for the deeply empathetic Digger.  Likewise, Kad Merad’s Rambert is more than just a likable lug, but a profoundly understanding old soul.  Astrid Berges-Frisbey is genuinely moving in her scenes with Auteuil, while also developing convincing chemistry with Nicolas Devauchelle’s not as caddish as he sounds Mazel.  An unusually forgiving film, it pardons the transgressions of everyone, even the severe Mme. Mazel.

The old-fashionedness of Digger is truly its virtue.  Perhaps, some of its rigid class-consciousness will be lost on some perpetually social-climbing Americans, but most viewers will be lulled by Jean-François Robin’s lush pastoral cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s nostalgic score.  A handsome period production with several worthy screen turns, The Well-Digger’s Daughter is easily recommended for Francophiles and patrons of literary dramas when it opens this Friday (7/20) in New York at the Quad Cinema.