D: Claude Berri / 120m
Cast: Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Elisabeth Depardieu, Margarita Lozano, Ernestine Mazurowna
Returning home after military service in World War I, Ugolin Soubeyran (Auteuil) uses the land he has to grow carnations. When his first crop fetches a good price at market, his uncle César (Montand) decides Ugolin’s project needs to be expanded, and they make an attempt at buying the neighbouring land. However, their attempt is unsuccessful, and when the owner dies, the land passes to his nephew, Jean Cadoret (Depardieu). Jean arrives with his wife, Aimée (Depardieu) and young daughter Manon (Mazurowna), and with a plan to make the land profitable by breeding rabbits and feeding them on cucurbit. But César and Ugolin have stopped up a spring that would provide plenty of water to Jean’s land, and he is forced to rely on another one that is some distance away, as well as rainfall to fill a cistern. But the rain doesn’t come, and further problems cause Jean’s endeavour to begin to fail. He’s prompted to sell by the Soubeyrans but remains stubborn in his determination to succeed. Deciding to dig a well, Jean, whose health has been deteriorating from all the physical labour, suffers a devastating injury when his use of dynamite has an unexpected outcome…
The first thing to mention about Jean de Florette (and the movie’s trump card if you like) is Bruno Nuytten’s stunning cinematography. This is a beautifully shot movie, with the Provence locations standing out as a vibrant, immersive background to a tale of greed and treachery, and one family’s efforts to ruin another family out of concern for their failing influence in the local community (Ugolin is the last of the Soubeyrans and not exactly husband material). César and Ugolin are villains in both the grand and parochial sense, using their reputation to hoodwink both Jean and their own friends into believing their actions are borne out of honest philanthropy, when the opposite is true. It’s their machinations that drive the narrative towards a deliberately unhappy ending (though it helps to know there’s a sequel to help put things right), and though their scheming is calculated, and their motives quite callous, nevertheless they’re still characters with a tremendous depth to them, from César’s arrogance borne out of pride in the family name, to Ugolin desperately seeking affirmation from his uncle at every turn. Both are driven by desires they’re unable to articulate, and both are trapped by the expectations associated with the family name.
Montand and Auteuil are magnificent as the treacherous Soubeyrans, and they’re matched by Depardieu as the tax collector and “unfortunately, by God’s will… a hunchback” Jean de Florette (Florette is his mother’s name, and what the locals call him). Always positive, his determination to succeed seeing him through setbacks that would crush the will of other men, Jean is a tragic figure writ large against the Provence countryside. It’s heartbreaking to see him try and fail over and over again, but Depardieu avoids any pity for Jean’s refusal to give in, and makes his efforts courageous in the face of certain defeat. You know it’s going to end badly for Jean but thanks to Berri’s assured direction, and a faithful adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s novel (by Berri and Gérard Brach), the viewer can’t help but hope that one of Jean’s schemes to succeed will come to fruition and save the day. With the villagers looking on (with some amusement), and the Soubeyrans waiting to capitalise on his inevitable misfortune, Jean’s predicament anchors the second half of the movie and allows a number of seemingly minor plot points to be revealed that will have a lasting impact on the events depicted in Manon des Sources (1986). You could argue that Jean de Florette is just a two hour teaser for its sequel, but it has its own self-contained story, and it has an emotional quality that the sequel doesn’t replicate – because it too has its own self-contained story. Either way, this is a true classic of French cinema, and one of the most beautiful movies ever made.
Rating: 9/10 – with its rich, lustrous cinematography (the Vaucluse department of Provence has never looked so vivid), Jean de Florette is a triumph of storytelling, acting, direction, production design – everything in fact, that goes to make it one of the most sublime movie experiences ever released; heartfelt and sincere, stirring and emotive, it’s a feast for the senses in all respects, and as authentic a representation of post-World War I Provence as you’re ever likely to find.