A Family at War

This remake of a 72-year-old film features characters that feel familiar all these years later

Marcel Pagnol's influence on French cinema goes back to the 1930s. He made his early mark as a director, but Pagnol's bigger contribution, at least by volume, was his writing. Many of his screenplays, stage plays and novels have been revisited time and again.

This is the first remake of his 1940 film, The Well Digger's Daughter. Speaking to the impact of Pagnol's work in France overall, the film is directed by Daniel Auteuil, who appeared in perhaps the best-known Pagnol exports, the mid-'80s duo of Manon of the Spring and Jean de Florette. Auteuil is currently directing three more Pagnol adaptations as a trilogy.

What is it about Pagnol's catalog that appeals so widely to the French, and what makes these works so transferable across the Atlantic? It may involve how relatable Pagnol's characters were then, and remain now. They have a genuine simplicity, even when faced with complex situations, that makes them feel very familiar. And in the case of The Well Digger's Daughter, there is also the beautiful Provençal countryside and that florid dialogue.

In the years before World War II, Pascal (Auteuil, directing himself) is trying to raise a half-dozen daughters on his own, on his meager salary from digging wells. The daughters help where they can, especially the eldest, 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Her father's dream is to see Patricia marry his co-worker, Félipe (Kad Merad), despite their quarter-century age difference. Patricia is instead captivated by a young airman named Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who we later learn is the son of Pascal's boss, a genealogy that complicates matters when Patricia carries Jacques' child.

When his regiment is called into duty, Jacques no-shows a final meeting with Patricia, leaving her pregnant and alone with no commitment from the father. Her own father more or less disowns her, citing the impact that a bastard child in the family would have on the prospects of her younger sisters. Félipe, still in love with Patricia, offers to marry her and raise the child as his own, but he, too, is called away to war.

Undercutting the rural lifestyle that dominates the first 30 minutes of this film is the loud, messy unpredictability of the 20th century. We can assume that Pascal's profession—proud as he is of his honest day's work—will not last the rest of his life. Birds of war are in the air, and his daughter has committed a horrible sin that could have at that time marked the entire family as undesirable. The hook in The Well Digger's Daughter is watching Pascal come to terms with everything all at once, even as he treats each ripple as a tidal wave.

Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is another in the long tradition of beautiful young French actresses whose every move is utterly graceful, and whose every word is sublimely lyrical; Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tautou, Marion Cotillard—how do they do that so well, so often? Though she's seemingly a lifetime older than her character at 26, Bergès-Frisbey brings incredible fragility to the role of Patricia, which makes Pascal's perceived betrayal of his daughter even more heartbreaking.

It is Auteuil, though, who moves this film forward. His direction is even, neither noticeably flawed nor noteworthy, although he had the sense to hire the great Alexandre Desplat to provide a terrific musical score. But his adaptation of Pagnol's novel, and particularly his heavy-hearted performance as a man who cuts off his nose to spite his face, help carry The Well Digger's Daughter beyond the ranks of just another French period piece. It says, quite convincingly, and with great ease, that the good old days and rough road ahead are what we make of them.