THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER Send This Review to a Friend
Marcel Pagnol’s 1940 “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” stands as a classic example of the earthy French cinema that helped to build appreciation here for foreign films. It explored a touchy subject with frankness, good humor and the maturity that one did not find in typical Hollywood films. Now Daniel Auteuil has come along to direct and star in a remake. Unlike with many a remake, Auteuil has adhered closely to the form and spirit of the original instead of attempting to charge it up in what would be a misguided effort to make it more modern. The result is a heartfelt work that seems fresh, as if the film had never been made before, yet respectfully honoring its predecessor.
Of course, there are ingredients in the original that simply can’t be duplicated—in particular the acting by the beloved Raimu and Fernandel. But Auteuil moves along confidently to establish his own brand of chemistry in the acting. And while the Pagnol film had its black and white earthiness in depicting country life, the new film is rich in color while losing none of the earthiness.
Auteuil plays Pascale, the well-digger (the part that Raimu had), who is living with his six daughters in Provence. The time is the beginning of World War I. His eldest daughter Patricia, played with lovely reserve by Astrid Bergés-Frisbey, is seduced by Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a handsome airman from a wealthy family, who promptly goes off to war. Patricia is left pregnant, a scandalous situation that leads her father, although loving her, to cast her aside to preserve the family honor. Auteuil’s performance is superb throughout as he conveys Pascale’s various emotions, sometimes with comic flair, sometimes with deep feelings that he attempts to mask.
Kad Merad gives another fine performance as Pascale’s assistant Felipe, who could marry Patricia and give her illegitimate child a name. But Patricia, who carries her situation with dignity, longs for Jacques. The story builds with a confrontation between Pascale and Jacques’s snobbish parents (Sabine Azema and Jean-Pierre Darroussin). The glow of the film stems from what ensues when, despite his worry about the child’s illegitimacy, Pascale eventually becomes possessive of his grandson in the face of the newly aroused interest of the other grandparents.
Much humor pervades the way all is worked out as principles are expressed and established. The film becomes a study in human behavior offering the delight of watching an excellent cast placed in a simple country environment. Unlike when the original was imported and building a story positively around the pregnancy of a single woman was unusual by Hollywood standards, the situation is no longer shocking. Still, Auteuil has managed to take us back to an era when an unwanted pregnancy could produce a crisis in a French country village. I consider “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” among the year’s best thus far, and doubly valuable for renewing awareness of a part of French cinema history. A Kino Lorber release. Reviewed July 20, 2012.