Watching the new French film “The Well-Digger’s Daughter,” set at the outbreak of World War I, is like being transported back not only in time but in technique. It’s a movie that could easily have been made 50 years ago, and I don’t mean that as a knock. There is much to be said for a film that values unflashy craft and simple, unhurried storytelling.
Based on the famous 1940 Marcel Pagnol classic, this new version is the directorial debut of Daniel Auteuil, who also wrote the screenplay (Pagnol is given co-credit) and stars as Pascal Amoretti, a working-class widower and father of six girls. The eldest, 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), grew up in Paris, but three years ago she returned to her small village in Provence to help out her family and the father she idolizes.
More worldly than many of the villagers, and yet fearfully naive, she is seduced by Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a dashing pilot and the son of a wealthy local store owner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Pregnant, suddenly bereft of the love of the father who praised her as a “princess,” she slips away in quiet disgrace.
With one exception, Auteuil doesn’t present any of these people as caricatures. The exception is Jacques’s mother, played by Sabine Azema, whose upper-class snobberies are boilerplate. Given how class-conscious this story is, that single lapse is forgivable. By keeping the villainy quotient low, Auteuil has absorbed the lessons of his country’s great humanist filmmakers, artists like Pagnol and Jean Renoir. He understands, as Renoir once said, that “everybody has their reasons.”
The downside to Auteuil’s approach is, at times, an excessive niceness. (This can also be a problem with Pagnol and even Renoir.) The monstrousness of
Patricia’s situation is never fully plumbed. Pascal may behave abominably, but he is, in the end, a harmless homespun patriarch. The plot machinations winding everything up are as fanciful as a fairy tale’s.
But perhaps the best way to approach “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” is as a species of fairy tale. Its charms lie in the playing out of the obvious – and also in the timeworn ways in which the performers inhabit their roles. The film is almost entirely well acted, not surprising given its director. I especially liked Kad Merad as the gangly, middle-aged Felipe, a fellow well-digger whose pure and unabashed love for Patricia makes him seem like one of Shakespeare’s doting, mooncalf suitors. You want only the best for this man. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)