The Well Digger's Daughter Review
Twenty-five years after he made his name acting in Claude Berri’s adaptations of two of Marcel Pagnol’s most famous novels, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources, Daniel Auteuil returns to the world of simple country life in the Provence region of the south of France (and the place of his own childhood) for his first feature film as a director.
The nostalgic and somewhat idealistic view of the past evoked in the works of Marcel Pagnol is not a fashionable subject for modern-day French cinema, but it remains a popular one when handled well, as in the aforementioned Berri films as well as in Yves Robert’s adaptations of the Pagnol autobiographical films La gloire de mon père and Le château de ma mère. While there is inevitably some idealisation of living close to nature in both sets of films, seen from the romanticised perspective of a fairly well-off family, Pagnol’s work doesn’t hesitate however to show the bitterness of family feuds in the provinces, greed and poverty, the mistrust of city folk, the ostracisation of outsiders and even those from within their own community who fail to live up to certain religious conservative standards. All of which are subjects that traditionally make for great melodrama and great cinema.
If The Well Digger’s Daughter (La fille du puisatier) is not great Pagnol (it was originally made as a film by the writer himself in 1940), and certainly not epic Pagnol in the tradition of his larger interconnected works, it at least mostly avoids the trap of idealisation of the Provence region, or at least it doesn’t make it the primary focus. Rather, the story operates more as a character drama, focussing on the people of the region, their beliefs, their sense of class, work ethic and tradition, and how they cope when an incident threatens the stability of these inviolable principles. In The Well Digger’s Daughter, it’s an old story, that of an unmarried girl, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), the daughter of the well-digger Pascal Amoretti (Daniel Auteuil), who gets herself pregnant just after turning eighteen.
What complicates matters – as if this event were not shameful enough in itself – is that the father-to-be, Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is not around to acknowledge his part in the affair, having been called up as a fighter pilot in the war which has just broken out, and has gone missing, presumed dead. Since he is also the son of a wealthy businessman, Mr Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the chances are that since the young couple were only together on two occasions, neither the boy nor his family – and certainly not his mother (Sabine Azéma) – are likely to admit to having anything to do with the pregnant daughter of a humble well-digger.
The film doesn’t really extend much beyond this in terms of plot. There is the further complication of Félipe’s unrequited love for Patricia – sensitively played by comedian Kad Merad – and his willingness to do the right thing by her, but the film is (surprisingly) less concerned with melodramatic twists of fate or chance, and is rather more concerned with exploring the characters and the attitudes of the society they live in. It’s marvellously played by all the principals, Astrid Berges-Frisbey the picture of youthful innocence and stoicism in the face of terrible injustice, Auteuil adopting an Italian-Provencal accent and slipping fully into character. The film is also beautifully shot in the glorious sunshine of the south of France without becoming too picture-postcard picturesque and, best of all, it’s superbly scored by Alexandre Desplat, who makes fine use of early 1940s period songs to heighten the nature of the situation.
The Well Digger’s Daughter is a creditable effort from Daniel Auteuil as a first-time director (and he has plans for further adaptations of Pagnol’s famous Marius, Fanny, Cesar trilogy), in touch with the material and the characters, without ever feeling the need to overstate, but the film also consequently never hits the emotional core of the situation in a way that would lift to the next level. Its very simplicity however may also in the end be its true charm.