This is the first of two related, and simultaneously lensed, films – at a global cost of 120 million francs (about $17 million), the most expensive production in French film history [to date] – that Claude Berri adapted from a two-part novel by Marcel Pagnol, who died in 1974.
Pagnol drafted his novel L’eau des collines years after making his penultimate feature film, Manon des sources in 1952, to which Jean de Florette is a prequel. The picture, typically long and talky (four hours in its original release, subsequently cut by distributor Gaumont), supposedly left Pagnol dissatisfied, prompting him to recast and expand his tale in literary form.
Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil play a proud, self-centered village elder and his rat-faced sub-intelligent nephew who covet a local piece of fertile land, its chief asset being a subterranean spring whose existence is known only to the locals. When the farm’s owner kicks off providentially, the greedy pair suddenly find themselves confronted by an heir: a hunchbacked young city slicker (Gerard Depardieu), who has brought his wife (played by Elisabeth Depardieu, the thesp’s real life mate) and young daughter, Manon, to settle and live off the land in Rousseauist simplicity.
Depardieu doesn’t know about the spring, which Montand and Auteuil have blocked up. Drought, the sirocco winds and the long desperate treks to fetch water from another spring in the mountains wear down Depardieu’s optimism. Auteuil befriends him and feeds him hypocritical advice, while Montand watches with patient scorn from the sidelines.
Berri’s sympathetic work with his small cast, and his subservience to Pagnol’s story and dialog are key factors in the film’s robust dramatic appeal. He and co-scripter Gerard Brach have resisted any temptations to revamp or update the story (set in a Provencal village of the 1920s). Berri has directed with tact and feeling, with luminous lensing by Bruno Nuytten.