Claude Berri. The man behind France's most ambitious film project
CLAUDE BERRI, one of France's most successful cin'eastes, is making film history with his latest production. It's a matched set of movies called ``Jean de Florette'' and ``Manon of the Spring,'' which use a deliberately old-fashioned style to tell an epic story of love, death, and redemption in the Proven,cal countryside during the mid-1920s.Skip to next paragraph
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Together, the two films - which last about four hours - cost nearly $17 million to produce, more than eight times the budget of an average French feature. They are now coming to American screens in a highly unusual manner: ``Jean de Florette'' opened last week, and its sequel is due for a December premi`ere.
What prompted Berri to lavish so much time and money on one project, and to use a conservative style that steers away from current cinematic fads?
The filmmaker says all his inspiration came from the 1963 novel by Marcel Pagnol on which the movies are based. ``I read the story, and I found it very exciting,'' Berri told me during a recent New York visit. ``I directed the movie, but I am not the author. ... For me, to make a picture is not to think a lot about things. It's to get emotions across.''
An internationally acclaimed producer and director, Berri worked long and hard to get the emotions of ``Jean'' and ``Manon'' on screen. The shooting schedule stretched over 36 weeks and four seasons, an unprecedented amount of time for a French production - making unprecedented demands not only on Berri but on such internationally renowned stars as Yves Montand and G'erard Depardieu, who head the cast.
The time and expense soon justified themselves, however. ``Jean'' and ``Manon'' were last year's highest-grossing attractions in France, outperforming hits like ``Raiders of the Lost Ark'' and ``Rambo: First Blood Part II,'' according to Orion Classics, the American distributor.
The two films have broken box-office records in Norway and Switzerland, as well, and have been warmly received in Canada.
Financing came from the French government, French and Italian television, Depardieu's production company, and - most of all - from production and distribution companies of which Berri is a key member.
The story focuses on two peasants called Papet and Ugolin, played by Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil, respectively. Needing water to feed the flowers Ugolin grows for a living, they conspire to hide a valuable spring from their new neighbor, Jean, a city man (played by G'erard Depardieu) who's automatically disliked by the suspicious farm community. Jean and his family suffer terribly from their lack of water. Eventually his daughter, Manon, exacts an ironic revenge on the culprits - and Papet discovers a ironic link to Manon in his own past.
Berri took this plot from Pagnol's novel ``The Water of the Hills,'' which he discovered in a Morocco bookstore soon after producing Roman Polanski's drama ``Tess'' almost 20 years ago. After a long effort to obtain the film rights from Pagnol's widow - who had starred in an unsuccessful 1952 film version by her husband - he set about writing a four-hour screenplay.