But for its color cinematography and the presence of director/screenwriter/star Daniel Auteuil, who was born in 1950, you would swear that The Well-Digger's Daughter was a 1940 film. For lovers of classical French cinema, and I am one, this earthy throwback is a whiff of lavender borne by the bracing winds of the mistral.
It is, in fact, a remake of Marcel Pagnol's 1940 movie, based on his own screenplay, about Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), the angelic eldest daughter of a Provençal laborer at the beginning of World War II. She is smitten with Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), an aviator and son of a prosperous shopkeeper, and he with her. They share stolen kisses, and a little more, before he is recalled to his unit. As is often the case in Pagnol narratives that celebrate the fertility of loamy soil, and loins, Jacques leaves a memento.
With his typewriter and movie camera, Pagnol did for turn-of-20th-century Provence what Dickens did for Victorian England.
The French writer/director/memoirist distilled personality types that were both local and universal while observing the class friction that at its best yielded pearls of sympathy.
Daughter is not the best of Pagnol's Provence pastorals. (My favorites are his 1930s films Fanny, Marius, and César; yours, perhaps, are Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, which introduced Auteuil to international audiences.) But Daughter is a light-dappled pleasure that provides the grizzled Auteuil with a meaty role as Amoretti, Patricia's comically indignant father. Moreover, this, Auteuil's directorial debut, permits him a feature-length rehearsal for his versions of Pagnol's Marseille Trilogy, Fanny, Marius, and César, currently in production.
Admittedly, the visual pleasures of Daughter are more of the pictorial than cinematographic kind. Bergès-Frisbey and Duvauchelle boast the planar faces and honey-colored glow that rival that of the Provençal landscape. Auteuil and Kad Merad (as Félipe, Amoretti's assistant) furnish the salt of this earth as rustics struggling to maintain honor in a dishonorable world. (In one of Pagnol's stories, a character observes that honor is like a match: It can be used only once.)
While Auteuil the director gives Auteuil the actor two too many honor-defending soliloquies, I forgave the rookie filmmaker and mentally took the hambone out of the actor's soup.
Daughter may be minor Pagnol but it has the major virtues of well-constructed story and satisfying denouement. Pagnol believed that "the reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be." As a storyteller he created characters who learn that it's easy to be happy if they enjoy the present and take a que sera, sera to tomorrow. Which is why Pagnol is a self-replenishing source.