Thursday, 4 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Jean De Florette

Jean De Florette

I’m a sucker for Le Cinéma Français and this really is one of the generally regarded national classics – an all-conquering powerhouse of French film. I can only assume the reason it has taken me so long to get around to it is precisely because of this status and that I didn’t want to be let down by it. I’m inordinately pleased to report that I wasn’t.

Despite being a deceptively simple tale, this deals with some of the greater human themes; envy, greed, tragedy and loss. Gathering a cast of contemporary French cinema’s biggest hitters (Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil, and Gérard Depardieu) and set against a backdrop of stunning Provençale vistas it couldn’t be more epic, yet it’s contained within a small-scale character drama. ‘Le Papet’ (Montand) and his simple-minded nephew Ugolin (Auteuil) hatch a scheme to purposefully block access to an essential natural spring in an effort to hide it from its rightful owner, Jean 'De Florette' (Depardieu) – or drive him away.

Behind the façade of rustic, Gallic charm is a tale of deceit at its basest level. Depardieu is the incomer, riling the locals chiefly for that reason – he doesn’t belong. He’s from the city, he’s deformed and his agricultural knowledge comes from books and not years tending the soil. The subtle, deliberately naïve performance from Depardieu makes his betrayal seem all the more harrowing. While ‘Le Papet’ is the puppet master pulling the strings from a safe distance, Ugolin is right there with Jean, the eternal optimist, exploiting his greenness and hiding behind supreme benevolence. The whole set-up is geared towards stirring emotions within the viewer – the beauteous, verdant scenery contrasting sharply with the rotten core of the arch-manipulator and his equally-culpable sidekick. Montand’s conniving Papet is played against expectations as a matter-of-fact, cheery uncle figure. Never getting his hands dirty he plays with Jean’s life, a smile tripping across his lips as he does.

This certainly isn’t a direct comparison but occasionally there’s something (maybe the key importance of the underground source of riches combined with an amoral protagonist) which lends the film echoes of There Will Be Blood, but the quintessentially French equivalent, replacing oil with spring water; There Will Be Evian(?)

There’s so much to enjoy in this from the cinematography to the fine performances and, not least of all, the score. Composer Jean-Claude Petit’s stirring main theme (with cues from Verdi) is a work of great beauty and fragility but is, sadly, destined to be remembered as the oh-so-French soundtrack for a series of increasingly tacky oh-so-French beer ads.

It wouldn't be full disclosure if I didn’t mention that it moved me to tears on more than one occasion. When Jean’s grand designs lie in tatters and his life is unravelling his cri du coeur, rallying at the Heavens, is a truly heart-wrenching moment.

It’s affecting, beautifully played and perfectly paced but it’s very much ‘part one’ of a duo and, while I absolutely loved this, I’m reserving full judgement until I’ve completed the saga.

(As standalone) 5/5

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