"MANON of the Spring" is the second part of "Jean de Florette." In "Jean" (based on Marcel Pagnol's two-part novel "L'Eau des Collines") Claude Berri sows derivative seeds of Greek tragedy in the southern French countryside. And in "Manon," that crop comes up fast, furious and melodramatic.
There's a revenge, a suicide, an anguishing discovery and much yabbing about fate. And even a tremendous acting performance by Daniel Auteil can't hide the fact that everyone's threshing around in a harvest of bathos.
Briefly: In "Jean," the aging Ce'sar (Yves Montand) and his ungainly nephew Ugolin (Auteil) have blocked the critical water source of a neighboring farmer -- forcing an artificial drought upon him. When the flustered farmer (Gerard Depardieu) dies in a freak accident (trying to blow a hole to the groundwater supply), they purchase the land, unblock the stream and set up a profitable carnation business. But, in "Manon," the farmer's daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Be'art), finds out about the crime -- and that the villagers knew what was happening. She secretly blocks the village's water supply from another hidden source so the village dries up.
There are many good components here and there in "Manon," but they're undercut, particularly by Be'art. Her obvious beauty is in inverse proportion to her acting. Whereas Roman Polanski managed to create a credible film around a similar problem (Nastassia Kinski in "Tess"), Berri is not so successful with the fates. Be'art was destined for hair conditioner ads.
To completely sabotage the work, there is an insipid affair between Manon and a young teacher, Bernard (Hippolyte Girardot). Their juvenile romance blunts the epic effect that Berri obviously is trying to create.
Auteil's Ugolin is so well drawn, it's a shame to see the role lost. He has literally transformed himself into the man, first driven by ambition, then torn apart with remorse and love. His stubbled face, the southern accent, the hanging mouth, the wild eyes -- they're all components in a remarkable performance. And Montand turns in one of his best roles as the dour but sensitive Ce'sar.
In perhaps the movie's best scene, Ugolin tries to confess his love for Manon to Ce'sar while hiding shyly behind a door. There is tragicomedy here -- it's a doomed passion and Ugolin is comically terrified of Ce'sar's anger. Both men play off each other brilliantly. And later, when Cesar finds out an awful truth, his anguished face will convey the whole tragedy of both films. But it's not quite enough for the movie's redemption.
MANON OF THE SPRING (Unrated) -- At the Key (with "Jean de Florette").