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.
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.
His collaborator was G'erard Brach, who has ``The Name of the Rose'' and Berri's own ``The Two of Us'' among his credits. Their goal was ``to make the audience think they're getting the whole story,'' Berri says with a smile, ``even though we'd need a 10-hour film for that!''
The story that runs through ``Jean'' and ``Manon'' has strong connections to earlier Berri films, which feature unlikely partnerships between two characters: a Jewish boy and an old anti-Semite in ``The Two of Us,'' an ex-cop and a small-time crook in ``Tchao Pantin,'' a middle-aged man and his best friend's daughter in ``In a Wild Moment.''
Berri says his recent films contain a theme that's personal to him, as well. It has to do with looking back on one's experiences, as Papel does - remorsefully - when ``Manon'' is drawing to a close.
``You always identify yourself with one character in a picture,'' says the filmmaker, ``even if you're not exactly like that character. I identified a lot with [the sad former policeman] in `Tchao Pantin' and, in some ways, with Papel at the end of `Manon.' When a man reaches a certain age, he may look at his life and have some remorse or bad conscience. One reason why I did these films is the end of `Manon,' when Papel starts thinking about his life - and how he's wasted it.''
He denies that ``Jean'' and ``Manon'' are introspective works, though. He intends them to be ``universal'' movies that give insights into the behavior of both ``good and bad people everywhere.'' One key to his understanding of human nature is the mixture of good and bad that many of his characters carry within themselves - a mixture that Berri doesn't try to simplify or homogenize for his audience. ``I prefer it when the audience can have an opinion of its own,'' he says. ``Life is not black or white. Life is black and white.''
Berri's films are not black-and-white but richly colored, reflecting a fascination with painting. In filming ``Jean'' and ``Manon,'' he acknowledges, he paid more attention to lighting and framing than to editing and camera movements. Pursuing this facet of his career, Berri has recently conducted interviews with such American artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, David Salle, and Jasper Johns. ``This is part of my life now,'' the filmmaker says, adding that he first got interested in painterly matters while observing the care Polanski invested in shooting ``Tess'' several years ago.
``Of course, you can make a masterpiece in three weeks,'' Berri observes. ``But for a certain kind of movie - if you like light, and want to put it into a film - you need time. And the choice of your crew is very important. You can't make a movie alone.''
Berri's next film will return to the kind of personal material that occupied his early work, when he frequently acted in his pictures as well as writing and directing them. In it, he will play himself as a middle-aged man - and in a major dream sequence, stars Philippe Noiret and G'erard Depardieu will play the character of Claude Berri, as well.
What will the result be like? ``It's a dream, it's true, and it's life. What can I say?'' answers the cin'easte. ``Like [French filmmaker Fran,cois] Truffaut, I don't think about what is more important, life or movies. ... In all my life, I am making only one movie. And that movie is my life.''