An old story given new life
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 27, 2012
A remake of a 1940 film by French novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” feels decidedly, almost defiantly, old-fashioned, but not necessarily in a bad way.
Its theme of the fallen woman -- the 18-year-old unwed mother referenced in the title -- feels quaint and out of sync, not just with many of today’s movies, but with the modern world in general. Still, the melodrama is classy and convincing, even if the scandal feels somewhat antique.
Set just before the start of World War I, the movie is the directorial debut of actor Daniel Auteuil (who plays the widowed well-digger, Pascal, with a mixture of rustic dignity and cuddly curmudgeonliness). Pascal’s daughter Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is pregnant and unmarried. Compounding that sexual taboo is the fact that the baby’s father, Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), is the son of a wealthy shopkeeper, while Patricia and her family are working class. After one brief assignation with the handsome young pilot, Patricia discovers she is with child. Jacques, meanwhile, has been called off to war, without so much as a chance to say good-bye.
The situation, in short, is a mess, considering the mores of the period in which the film is set.
With their only son at war, Jacques’s snooty parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Sabine Azema) show less concern with Patricia’s claim of paternity than with the dangers of Jacques’s military service. Initially, they rebuff the well-digger when he shows up seeking a wedding for his daughter -- or at least a letter informing their son of his parental responsibility. Pascal arrives sans shotgun, bringing only a sense of honor, humility and the expectation that people will do the right thing.
Needless to say, they do not.
Those guilty of bad behavior include Pascal, who ships Patricia off to live, in shame, with his sister. For him, it is as if his “lost” daughter is dead.
The rest of the film revolves around Pascal’s slow evolution, if not into a paradigm of tolerance, then into something more closely resembling an example of 21st-century enlightenment. Showing him the way is Pascal’s puppyish employee, Felipe (Kad Merad), a decent if nebbishy charmer who’s so smitten with Patricia that he offers to take her as his wife and to raise Jacques’s child as his own. Merad’s performance is ingratiating without being cloying.
In general, that’s true of everyone in the fine cast. As Patricia, Berges-Frisbey is especially good, avoiding sanctimoniousness in a character so angelic she practically floats. Duvauchelle is well cast as Jacques, though the actor occasionally slips into oiliness. Considering that we’re not meant to know, until the end, whether he’s a cad or a prince, it works.
Prettily filmed in the Provence countryside, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” is a relic of another time, both in terms of its quaint moral code and its even quainter moviemaking.
Contains sexual themes and brief vulgarity. In French with English subtitles.