Judge William Lee can't dig a well but he knows how to paint himself into a corner.
"She isn't a daughter, she's a treasure from the Good Lord."—Pascal
Novelist Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) was the first filmmaker elected to the Académie Française, in 1946. It is the oldest of France's cultural institutions, established in 1635, acting as the official authority on the French language and its members are called the immortals. It's a big deal, to say the least. Actor Daniel Auteuil (Caché) makes his directorial debut with this remake of Pagnol's 1940 film La Filled du Puisatier. The updated The Well Digger's Daughter assuredly stands in the same tradition of fine French cinema.
Facts of the Case
Pascal Amoretti (Daniel Auteuil, Caché) is a widower raising six daughters in the countryside of southern France. His profession is digging and maintaining wells, which provides for the family's modest but happy living. He hopes his eldest daughter Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) will marry his friend and assistant Felipe (Kad Merad, The Chorus), a middle-aged man who is braver around dynamite than women, so she'll always be close to the family. When Patricia falls for dashing air force pilot Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle, White Material) it leads to the kind of unmentionable complications that will tear families apart.
The film could be described as old-fashioned for its attitude about class and respectability as well as its unadorned filmmaking. Good storytelling is never out of fashion, however, regardless of outdated thinking. Filmmaking that engages the mind rather than dazzling the senses is surely a sign of the director's confidence in the script. The movie takes place in a 1940s southern France that seems to have only flirted with modernity. A personal automobile is an uncommon thing to own and the idea of flying in an airplane would make most people nervous. World War II is looming but the inhabitants of this region are hardly affected until someone they know is called to serve.
To my mind, it seems like splitting hairs that there is such a marked class divide between Pascal's family and that of the shopkeeper Monsieur Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Le Havre), Jacques's father. Yet, it exists without question in these characters' world. It's hardly even said by Patricia or Jacques but they behave as if it's instinctively known that their parents would not approve of their relationship. I actually gasped when Madam Mazel (Sabine Azéma) commits a heartless betrayal of her son's trust but that's when I knew the movie had its hooks in me.
The characters are convincingly of their time. They do not transcend their station in society or challenge the conventional thinking but they exude a quiet strength in their dignity. In their own way, they manage to surprise as well. Patricia starts out appearing vulnerable but she faces the dilemma of being an unwed mother with courage and she grows into a woman who is sure of herself. Pascal is torn between his devotion to his family and the stigma of having a disgraced daughter. What an emotional rollercoaster it is to watch him stick up for his daughter in one scene and then make a heartbreaking decision on her future in the next. Felipe seems pegged to be the buffoon at first but he could be the most intelligent and sensitive player in the drama. The movie is full of characters that win our sympathy because they possess the ability to correct their mistakes.
Much of the drama in the movie comes out of conversations that are carefully polite. Explicitly commenting on the elephant in the room just won't do. Consider Pascal's words when he confronts Jacques's parents about what their children have done: "Mr. Mazel, sweet nothings are fine in the springtime but then summer comes along, and then autumn, and fruit grows beneath the leaves. You understand me?"
The lyrical dialogue is simultaneously frustrating and elegant in how everyone knows what is being said without saying it. I watched the movie with benefit of English subtitles and I think the translated script works very well. The dialogue flows nicely and the vocabulary is well suited to the performances. The action in this story is conveyed in the conversations and they surely make for involving drama.
The high definition image for this release of The Well-Digger's Daughter (Blu-ray) is superb. The 1.85:1 framed, 1080p/AVC-encoded picture is absolutely gorgeous in its detailed rendering of the sunny French countryside. Several establishing views are shot with a wide depth of field that puts the landscape in sharp focus from nearby tall grass to the distant trees. Textures on skin and clothing are flatteringly photographed to fine detail. The slightly warm color palette enriches the earthy tones but blues and greens also benefit from pleasantly natural-looking saturation. I simply loved looking at this beautiful movie.
Surround audio is mixed in DTS-HD Master Audio and while it doesn't knock my socks off, it is certainly fine for this kind of movie. Dialogue is concentrated in the center speaker and while the voices are clearly heard, there is a slight flatness to the mix. Surround channels are constantly active, whether it's the lovely music by composer Alexandre Desplat, the quiet rustle of the woods or the gentle chirping of birds, and the effects never drown out the voices.
Extras are limited to the film's trailer and a gallery of still photographs. Two of the photos show Auteuil at work behind the camera but the rest are just shots from the movie.
Daniel Auteuil played the scheming farmer Ugolin in 1986's Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, which were also based on Pagnol's works. Returning to the world of the renowned French author 26 years later, Auteuil proves that he can make a movie that is respectful to its inspiration and thoroughly engaging for contemporary viewers. Perhaps because of its old-fashioned storytelling, The Well Digger's Daughter feels unique among today's movies. Auteuil is also directing remakes of Pagnol's Marseille trilogy and I'm looking forward to seeing them. In the meantime, The Well-Digger's Daughter (Blu-ray) is highly recommended for its lovely telling of an old-fashioned story and the overall beautiful filmmaking.
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