After a six-month intermission, the villains of "Jean de Florette" are finally getting their just deserts: Director Claude Berri continues his epic cliffhanger of 1930s Provence with "Manon of the Spring," a lyric sequel to the grander, operatic Part 1. Though appealing in its wispy way, "Manon" is only a continental soap opera.
Based on Marcel Pagnol's dynastic novel, the two-part saga dissects a struggle for water -- the measure of wealth among the villagers of this parched area of southern France. Though they share a mythic melancholia, "Florette" is the more dynamic, a tale of the drought of honor among insular bumpkins. "Manon" has the lesser task of tying up the loose ends.
In Part 1, evil "Le Papet" (Yves Montand) blocks the spring that irrigates the hunchback Jean de Florette's newly inherited farm. The knowing villagers stand by while de Florette, a city-bred outsider, works himself to death to keep his land. Le Papetand his nephew Ugolin then buy the place at a low price, pretending they are helping de Florette's widow and orphan. In Part 2, de Florette's daughter Manon, now 10 years older and a thousand times fairer, turns the water tables.
Emmanuelle Be'art, the seraph in "Date With an Angel," plays the earth child Manon, a nymph of the rugged Prohills. A shepherdess, she tends her goats while she waits for her chance to punish Le Papet and the villagers, whose crime was silence. One day as she splashes in a grotto pool, Ugolin spies her and falls hopelessly in love. With the approval of Le Papet, the infatuated Ugolin presses his suit.
Likewise the director becomes enamored of the beautiful and unaffected actress. It's an obsession that changes the scope of the story from folk epic to faerie tale. So "Manon" gets its gauzy ambiance from Be'art, just as "Florette" took its wide-screen vigor from Gerard Depardieu. The sequel misses the robust Depardieu, though Montand and Daniel Auteuil, as Ugolin, provide essential vitality.
Auteuil won a 1986 Ce'sar (the French Oscar) for his performance as Ugolin, the ugly, simple-minded nephew manipulated by his scheming uncle. He gives the guileless farmer a sad dignity and an embryonic sense of morality that turn him into the movie's richest character -- a kind of rustic Pierrot. Le Papet dreams of rebuilding the family dynasty with this last heir.
Montand, noted in America as a nonchalant leading man, is quite the opposite as the creaky, jowly Le Papet. He seems as natural to the village as the old rubbed-down mountains themselves. There's something of the godfather in this dark old man. It is a fine performance for Montand, but it is diminished by the trappings of "Manon."
The screenplay by Berri and Ge'rard Brach may be true to Pagnol, but it feels padded with obligatory references to the inefficiencies of the bureaucrats who send a water specialist to talk gobbledygook to the worried peasants. Added to that are tedious sermons and quarrels, all of which seem to exist only to inflate the plot.
"Florette" and "Manon" were filmed together but released six months apart in a box-office experiment that has brought big bucks. "Manon" is the artistic victim of the entrepreneurs. What Berri had is a really good three-hour movie -- only one of those hours from "Manon." Still, she is a pretty thing.
Manon of the Spring, rated PG, is playing at the Key Theatre. It is in French with English subtitles.