Talk about going back to the well: for his directorial debut, the star of Claude Berri’s Eighties Provençal standards Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring picks another tale of the French countryside previously filmed by Marcel Pagnol (in 1940). Writing the script and playing one of the title characters, Daniel Auteuil plods about in a peasant jerkin playing a good-hearted salt-of-the-earth type who’s methodically raising five daughters on his meager well-digger’s earnings.
But hélas! the prettiest, Patricia (played by a pallid Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), gets knocked up by a storeowner’s son (Nicolas Devauchelle), a pilot who promptly leaves for the front. Tears, hard words, and more tears follow, with the bourgeois storeowner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife (shrill Sabine Azéma) acting all hoity-toity toward our stolid well digger. There’s also a well-digging co-worker, another plodder (but what a heart!) who fancies Patricia and hasn’t a prayer.
Auteuil directs this throwback wedlock drama under the apparent belief that its old chestnut plot and themes are hair-raisingly complex and require the greatest care in delivering dignifying platitudes about class boundaries and strength of character. This is the kind of picturesque, well-bred film which can only be called “humanist” out of politeness. But at the same time, Auteuil seems to have created exactly what he set out to—up next for him is Pagnol’s trilogy César, Fanny, and Marius—even if the results make one long for Caché.