Jean de Florette

Everywhere it has played, Jean de Florette has been enormously successful, and it’s very easy to see why. This is a kind of filmmaking that we don’t see much anymore: broad, grand, fresco-like entertainment. For all intents and purposes, it’s the Gone with the Wind of modern French cinema.

In some ways, this description is ironic, for the actual matter of the story is relatively small. Drawn from a novel and 1952 film by Marcel Pagnol, Jean de Florette tells a simple tale. In the 1920s, two conniving farmers, the magisterial Soubeyran (Yves Montand) and his scurvy nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), plot to drive out a new neighbor, Jean de Florette, and buy up his land, which contains a valuable hidden spring. The neighbor (Gerard Depardieu) is a cultivated hunchback with a wife (Elisabeth Depardieu) and daughter (Ernestine Mazurowna).

The two plotters have stopped up the spring on the hunchback’s land, so that his experiments in rabbit-breeding and vegetable-growing will be doomed to failure in the hot Provence summer. Jean’s heroic efforts to find water almost convince the ugly, friendless Ugolin that all of the conniving is wrong. Almost.

This is the tale. In director Claude Berri’s hands, it is a marvelous story indeed. Every carefully composed frame of the movie (the excellent cinematography is by Bruno Nuytten) emphasizes the epic scale, and the characters are consistently seen in terms of their relationship to the land and the elements.

And Berri’s script, written with Gerard Brach (who has collaborated on approximately half the great French films of the last 25 years), is full of beautiful detail and rich humor. Initially the Soubeyrans’ plan is seen in black-humored terms, and we can take nasty pleasure in their dirty dealings. Yet Jean’s stolid, simple determination is finally winning.

Probably Berri’s greatest achievement is with the actors. The superb Montand is rascally and inhuman, yet with the kind of grace that can transform his tasting of a dirt sample into a nearly religious act. Depardieu finds the desperation in the simple Jean, without losing his simplicity.

Daniel Auteuil will be the least-known of the actors to American audiences, but his dim-witted, rodent-like little man is a remarkable creation. The look of stupid astonishment on his face when Jean shows him a gigantic potato from the hunchback’s supposedly dry garden is a wonderfully (and typically) complex moment. Many actors let you know when they’re playing dumb, and thus condescend to their characters; Auteuil gets completely within this empty-eyed fellow.

As fine as this film is, it is only half the story. A second part, Manon of the Spring, was filmed simultaneously and will be released in a few months. It will describe how the Soubeyrans receive their comeuppance. If it’s anything like Jean de Florette, it ought to intensify the effect already apparent in Jean: Watching this movie is just like getting lost in a huge, juicy novel. For once, a sequel is eagerly anticipated.

First published in The Herald, August 30, 1987

Big, big hit. Berri’s first feature was The Two of Us, a sentimental set-up that got some starch from its modern cutting (also co-written with Brach). I can’t find my review of Manon of the Spring, alas, the movie that brought Emmanuelle Beart to international attention (and her starring role in the indelible Date with an Angel).

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