If Faulkner had been French, Yoknapatawpha County would have been in Provence, the hot and hidebound region that serves as the setting for Marcel Pagnol's epic novel "The Water of the Hills." This Gallic southern Gothic of feuding families -- the aging patriarch versus the naive hunchback -- has become a broody "Masterpiece Theatre" for the big screen.
Claude Berri's "Jean de Florette," with Yves Montand and Ge'rard Depardieu, is the first installment in the pastoral two-parter, a cliffhanger that leaves viewers lusting for revenge. For satisfaction, those caught up in the compelling story must wait till Christmas and the sequel, "Manon of the Spring." And that's an outrage, since "Jean" and "Manon," the story of Jean's daughter, were shot simultaneously in the arid mountains near southerly Marseilles. In fact, the movies' distributors say, " 'Jean' is a trailer for 'Manon.' " So what we have here is a long, methodic buildup, a pedantically paced tease.
Pagnol, a filmmaker himself, directed a 1952 version of "Manon of the Spring," a five-hour box office fiasco based on a folk tale of his native Provence. In 1963 he reworked the material into a two-volume novel, enriching his characters and inventing a new ending on which Berri bases this adaptation. Like the word-worshiper Pagnol, the director Berri concentrates on character and language, with the authenticity of the actors' southern accents as critical here as in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Therefore, for subtitle readers, the power of the words is lost, along with the quirks of character that regional speech conveys. We hear the melody, but not always the harmonies.
Depardieu is not necessarily a man of words. He's a hulking screen presence, who can as readily play a roughhouse cop as an angelic hunchback. Here, he's the city-bred Jean, who arrives in the isolated village of Les Bastides Blanches to claim his inheritance, a lovely old farm coveted by a neighbor. He is a dreamer, without a thought for realities, like Depardieu's Martin Guerre.
As the antagonist Ce'sar Soubeyran, Montand no longer cuts a dashing figure as he did in such American films as "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." A native of Provence, he blends into the movie perfectly. It's as if he put on a magic cloak and became an ancient of the region, a garrulous, greedy eldest survivor of a once wealthy family.
Daniel Auteuil, also a native of the region, disguises his good looks with prosthetics and a bad haircut to play Soubeyran's only other relative, his ugly, simple-minded nephew Ugolin. He gave up a part in "Three Men and a Cradle" to play this Gomer Pyle look-alike, and won the 1986 Ce'sar for Best Actor for his work as the pathetic pawn, who comes to like Jean but is not smart enough to sort out his own emotions. Soubeyran does it for him, sending Ugolin to befriend the annoyingly optimistic Jean. A fool's fool.
With the silent complicity of the villagers, the two plug up the spring that irrigates Jean's lands as part of a scheme to buy up the property at a cheap price. But Jean, a turn-of-the-century Euell Gibbons, is bound to become a natural man. He and his good wife (played by Depardieu's own wife Elisabeth) and their fair daughter Manon (played by Ernestine Mazurowna) work like mules to make a success of things. (Berri is maddening, what with all their trips to and from a neighbor's spring.) Only Manon, who grows up to avenge her family in Part 2, seems the least bit suspicious of the locals. There's the wisest look in her unsmiling eyes.
Manon is named for the title character of the opera in which her mother, a former singer, played her finest role. Manon, like Jean and even Ugolin, was an innocent wronged. Operatic clues abound with composer Jean-Claude Petit conducting a score inspired by Verdi's "The Force of Destiny." It thunders like the storms that suddenly blow up and then pass over Jean's parched squash and corn. Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten, responsible for the gloomy look of "The Name of the Rose," is an accomplice, emphasizing the thirsty earth, the sunny landscapes that burned up van Gogh.
Nuytten also worked with Berri on "Tchao Pantin," a film noir that won five Ce'sars in 1983. Though the look is vastly different, the subject is revenge -- a man avenging the death of a North African punk who'd become like his son. His work as the producer of Roman Polanski's "Tess," another story of innocence betrayed and set to the passing of the seasons, was most likely the dress rehearsal for "Jean" and "Manon."
Of course, we don't know whether he has made a good movie yet, only that he has made a half-movie, approaching it with a rural stoicism. And while the first half of the double feature is well drawn, without "Manon" it remains a work in progress. It could prove a definitive French masterwork, but for all we know this is just the prologue.
Jean de Florette, at the Key, in French with subtitles, is unrated but suitable for all audiences.