According to Judge Bill Gibron, foreign films don't get much better than this pair of provocative French tragedies. Unfortunately, DVD packages definitely do.
Man vs. Nature…His Own, and Mother.
Tragedy is a tough sell in today's feel-good market. No one wants to be depressed over another's lot in life, no matter how cathartic the whole age-old art form can be. No, our existence is so fraught with failure, foibles, and fallacies that to watch another suffer the same social and situational slings and arrows is just too much to bear. So any story in our post-millennial malaise has to have an upbeat, perky conclusion or there will be middling hell to pay. Give the audience a downer and they will submerge you—the writer/filmmaker/songwriter/singer—right along with your purposed melancholy. Oddly enough, it's the very aggressive angst-drive elements of the 1986 films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring that makes them so sensational. Born out of a genre that takes the ordinary and magnifies it to almost-epic interpersonal proportions, what we have here, essentially, is a story of voracity and vengeance pumped up and inflated to near-biblical connotations. With their concrete concepts of heroes and villains, payback and penance, these astounding motion pictures fill a void left unattended by modern moviemakers. They cling to catastrophe and merge with misfortune to produce some of the best foreign filmmaking of the last 20 years, if not of all time.
Facts of the Case
Since they are part of a single story, the plots for both Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring will be described in one subsection:
It is just after World War I, and French landowner Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand, Le Cercle Rouge) is concerned about his nephew, Ungolin (Daniel Auteuil, The Girl on the Bridge). A decent if dumb fellow, he wants the young man to carry on the family's familiar agricultural ways. But without property to plant on, the boy's carnation farm is merely a pipe dream. As luck would have it, a lot opens up nearby, a spectacularly rich parcel with its own underground spring. Efforts to secure the acreage are thwarted however when a hunchbacked city slicker named Jean Cadoret (Gerard Depardieu, 102 Dalmatians) shows up. He claims to be the heir of the original owner and, before the Soubeyrans know it, he's taken over and begun tilling the soil. Unknown to the cripple, however, his rivals have dammed up his only source of water, and it's not long before the lack of rainfall takes its toll.
Jean, desperate to make his enterprise work, toils day and night, traveling up and down the mountainside to fetch water to fill his cistern. Tragedy strikes, and soon the only member of the family left on the land is little Manon. She knows the truth about the Soubeyrans, and takes off to live in the wilderness. As she grows up amid nature, the striking young beauty vows revenge against the family. In the meantime, Ungolin has become a success, and Cesar wants him to marry and have children. He obsesses over the grown Manon (Emmanuelle Beart, Mission: Impossible), and hopes they will wed. But this angry girl has a plan to punish the entire town; with her actions, she hopes to see the Soubeyran dynasty destroyed once and for all.
Fate is a funny thing. Challenge it, and you're liable to find destiny digging into your backside. The histrionics of happenstance don't like it when you mess with what was meant to be, and they hate it even more when you manipulate events to your own, unplanned advantage. It sets up the kind of karmic payback we see in the powerful pair of French film classics, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Based on the novel L'Eau des collines (The Water of the Hills) by author Marcel Pagnol, what was originally seen as standard melodrama material was turned into sheer Shakespearean tragedy by actor-turned-auteur Claude Berri. Channeling some sort of classical spirit, and working with famed scenarist Gerard Brach, what could have been cloying, pat, and oh so sentimental was transformed into a powerful statement about perseverance, hubris, and amorality. While the storyline is simple enough—greedy landowner wants prime agricultural real estate for his dimwitted nephew—the manner in which Cesar Soubeyran finally achieves his goal says more about him as a man than any other facet of his already domineering personality.
At the center of this story is the notion of entitlement…or, maybe, a better way of putting it is "arrogant prerogative." Cesar has no right to the land he wants, but he's hoping to cock-block everyone else's interest. He will wield the implied power he has, an old family sense of dynasty that naturally has to fuel his undoing, but because of all the myths he carries with him, the legacies of previous patrons and ancestors, his only living kin (the dopey Ungolin) must succeed at all costs. So not only is this a matter of power—it's a matter of personal pride. Recognizing the famous flaws marketed by generations of dramatists, Berri piles on the imperfections, turning Cesar into a walking, talking cautionary tale. His is a "be careful what you wish for" world, a reality that stems directly from his own insular point of view. It fills both films with an amazing sagacity, rich in irony and percolating with possibilities. To his credit, the filmmaker never fouls this up. Instead, he shoots for the straightforward, making Cesar's undermining of Jean as simple as shutting off the tap. Even with a cistern and a spring high in the hills, this fledgling farmer can't possibly succeed. One of the most heartbreaking elements of the first film is watching our stoic farmer initially triumph, only to wither and systematically fail.
It was a brilliant move on Pagnol's part to make our cad's target a hapless hunchback. Berri takes it even further by turning to Parisian powerhouse Gerard Depardieu to play Jean. It's a genius juxtaposition—a larger-than-life figure physically deformed and viewed as incapable and crippled. Dumb as a post Ungolin, on the other hand, is seen as a strapping, proficient worker. All he needs is the soil, and the support of his uncle, to become a success. Jean has no such guarantees. He may be smart, and able to use newfangled scientific methods to increase his crop yield, but without the direct help of nature in the form of rain (or the knowledge of the underground spring that Cesar is keeping from him), all his brains won't sprout a single plant. Jean de Florette thrives on the notion of our hero's possible achievement, but we also understand the necessities of the narrative. This man must fail in order to fulfill the plot's promise. What remains then is the why and the how. Within these clear conceits, this movie becomes a masterpiece. Indeed, when predictability can't undermine a story's sensational twists and turns, you know you're watching something quite remarkable. Thanks to the exceptional performances given by Depardieu, Yves Montand, and Daniel Auteuil, we get glory on top of such greatness.
This makes the equally enormous mastery of Manon even more impressive. Of course, the secret here is that Berri originally imagined these films as a single four-hour epic, and both projects were helmed concurrently. They were cut in half for international consumption, the feeling being that if Jean de Florette failed, Manon could be saved for the more tuned-in European audiences. Still, consistency creates the kind of aesthetic that supports even a supposed "sequel." That is why this second half remains as powerful as the first. Minor details skimmed over in the first film become all encompassing here, character issues and interactions from hour one come back to reap immeasurable rewards in hour four. Since we once again know that Jean's jaded daughter will be seeking vengeance on the men who more or less murdered her father, it's the manner in which she earns her payback that's more important than whether or not she actually achieves it. Sure, there is a last-act denouement meant to add insult to what is already a massive amount of paradoxical injury. But films like Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring are not exercises on particularized plotting. Instead, they are illustrations of man's inherent nature, spruced up with amazing shots of the French countryside.
One does have to stop for a moment and mention Berri's dazzling direction. This is a movie about nature—man's and mother—and without a reason to embrace the beauty of France's idyllic Provence, we could care less about the parties fighting over it. But thanks to the work of his cinematographer, Bruno Nuytten, both films are overflowing with visual splendor. When Jean witnesses his first rainstorm, his dried-up plants finally getting some much needed moisture, the imagery is larger-than-life. Similarly, when Ungolin stumbles upon a naked Manon taking a bath, the optical splendor suggests the canvas of an old master. Indeed, a large portion of these films reflect art come to life—in words, in ideas, in pictures, and in actions. As we see the tragic facets fall into place, as Ungolin's sad infatuation and Cesar's bloodline lust start to distort their fortunes, we prepare ourselves for that big revelation. But it's interesting how anticlimactic it actually feels, especially in context of all that's come before. We want comeuppance and demand the kind of karmic justice only film can find, but when we learn the ugliest of truths, it seems more sensible than seismic. It's that "of course" sort of sentiment, the almost always allegorical conclusion that these stories regularly stumble into. In fact, once we experience the drop of that final shoe, we find ourselves reflecting on all that happened previously, and wondering how things would be different with just a little informational perspective.
It's that ability to move us both mentally and metaphysically, to have us contemplating issues bigger than ourselves and yet more private than we'd ever considered that makes Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring so exciting. As the last film moves through its myriad of revelations and double crosses, public humiliations and startling admissions, what we see is a lifetime of lies slowly unraveling. In the case of Cesar, he's been lying to himself and to the town. He has no more power than his sheer force of will could conjure. Similarly, Jean was lying to his family. He was unfit to provide for them, and, even with the help of science, his stunted stature would ultimately destroy his dream. Almost everything about Ungolin is a lie. Here is a man made out of someone else's greed and gumption, a failure lifted into the realm of success via the puppet mastery of providence. And then there's Manon. She's lying to her father's legacy, believing (rightly or wrongly) that several more wrongs will make this one massive injustice right. Of course, with all this falsehood and infighting, tragedy is the only conceivable outcome. That Claude Berri makes such misery a joy to behold is part of what makes this pair of movies so unique. Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring are very special films. They transcend the ordinary to become quintessential.
For how delicious and delightful these films are, there has to be a downside, right? Well, if you're betting on some manner of substandard DVD presentation, you'd be 100 percent right. MGM, through Sony, has decided that the best way to celebration these astounding works is to offer them on a single flip disc, with absolutely no bonus features whatsoever. No trailers. No pre-title previews. No filmographies or biographies. Just the movies and nothing else. Now, this would be fine had the studio decided to remaster the 20-year-old prints and give them a stunning audio and video presentation, but rumor has it that these are merely the original transfers from the long OOP discs given the now mandatory anamorphic widescreen tech spec. While quite striking in their radiance, there is a tendency toward too much yellow and brown here, as if someone on the color control knob took "earthiness" a little too literally. Still, for 16x9 fans, the films now conform to your home theater dynamic. To this untrained eye at least, the 2.35:1 pictures look pretty damn good. On the side of sound, there is nothing really important to discuss in regards to the Dolby Digital Stereo Surround mix. The French dialogue is discernible (with excellent, non-obtrusive subtitles) and the ambient elements of the countryside come across loud and clear.
In the end, of course, all tragedy is about loss—the loss of life, the loss of place, the loss of self. What makes it so hard is the parallel realization of how much effort will be required to gain back some or all of the defeat—if indeed it's possible to do so. That's why modern audiences hate heartbreak. It reminds them of how mightily they've struggled to achieve so very little. It's the same in both Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. When one looks at what, initially, Cesar and Ungolin achieve, the results are rather meaningless. So they got some good soil with its own watering supply. Somehow, that matters in the grand scheme of life's bigger issues? Similarly, reason would suggest that Manon simply learn to forgive and move on, using her father's legacy as a lesson in future distrust and suspicion. But instead, she finds herself driven down to and operating on Cesar's perverted playing field, and no matter how right her actions may seem, the end game can only produce the shallowest of victories. When a movie can make its triumphs seem tainted and its failures seem fascinating, you know it has merged into masterpiece territory. Perhaps the greatest examples of the genre of dramatic exaggeration every created, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring are timeless. They may be tragic, but they're also terrific.
Not guilty. These films are free to go. MGM and Sony, on the other hand, are remanded over for a superseding indictment on substandard DVD packaging strategies.
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Perp Profile, Jean De Florette
Distinguishing Marks, Jean De Florette
Scales of Justice, Manon Of The Spring
Perp Profile, Manon Of The Spring
Distinguishing Marks, Manon Of The Spring
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