The humanist spirit of Gallic novelist-director Marcel Pagnol is alive and well in the old-fashionedly sincere “The Well-Digger’s Daughter,” a competent remake of Pagnol’s eponymous 1940 melodrama about a working-class girl impregnated by a young pilot who’s sent off to war. As an added marketing bonus, pic reconnects star and debuting scribe-helmer Daniel Auteuil with Pagnol’s universe exactly 25 years after his breakthrough role in “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring.” Local April 20 bow was strong, and older arthouse auds offshore will also find this to their taste.
Though the 1940 version of “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” was informed by a stronger sense of naturalism, urgency and topicality, with the ongoing war actually feeding into the story, both versions are imbued with the bucolic charm and the conspicuous lack of villains that is typical of Pagnol’s work, with its flawed but honest, deeply human characters.
In Auteuil’s retelling, the war is further reduced to a simple patriotic duty, with the enemy and frontlines completely invisible. With the benefit of hindsight, the remake also more clearly articulates the changing mores of the mid-20th century, with the titular well-digger, played by Auteuil himself in an impressively fleshed-out role, even more obviously torn between what he feels is expected of him and what he feels is right.
Auteuil plays Pascal Amoretti, a proud but poor man based in the rural South of France. To help him raise his many daughters on his own, Amoretti has asked his teen offspring, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), to return from Paris, where she was being looked after by nuns. Patricia might stand out in the small community with her big-city airs, but she clearly loves her dad and tackles her duties with a smile.
Dashing pilot Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the son of the village’s rich hardware-store owner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his flighty wife (Sabine Azema), is immediately smitten with the newly returned beauty. But Amoretti has already considered giving Patricia away in marriage to his decidedly older employee, Felipe (Kad Merad).
The outbreak of war sends both Felipe and Jacques to the front, though not before Jacques makes his move on Patricia and, in one of the film’s strongest scenes, Patricia reveals to Felipe why she can’t marry him: She’s pregnant.
Remainder of the pic, which plays out the consequences of Jacques and Patricia’s single sexual encounter, could have yielded an over-the-top melodrama. But Auteuil, who also penned the adaptation, exercises the appropriate restraint, simply observing these people struggle with their day-to-day reality, the expectations of the village and what their hearts tell them is right.
With his coarse features, thick Provencal accent and grubby rags, Auteuil’s Amoretti cuts an appropriately blocky figure opposite the delicate Berges-Frisbey, who speaks proper French and is dressed in Parisian finery. The father-daughter coupling is the movie’s central emotional axis and is never less than convincing.
Auteuil gets the lion’s share of the at-times lyrical dialogue, while French-Catalan thesp Berges-Frisbey (a relative newcomer who will be seen in the upcoming “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) uses her expressive face, often seen in closeup, to suggest that her character doesn’t take her decisions lightly. Merad is convincing in a role originated by Fernandel, and rest of the cast is on the money, though Azema strikes a rare false note as Jacques’ hysterical, one-dimensional mother.
Production and costume designs are lush, with Jean-Francois Robin’s lensing accentuating the pretty, bucolic setting. As with some of his other recent work for French film, Alexandre Desplat’s score is less singular than his work for English-language projects (“The Ghost Writer,” “Fantastic Mr Fox”).
For the record, the producers were so enthusiastic about the rookie scribe-helmer’s work here that a remake of Pagnol’s Marseillaise trilogy, also shepherded by Auteuil, was greenlit even before “Daughter” preemed.