Well-Digger's Daughter: Video Treasure

Directed by Daniel Auteuil
Pathé, 107 minutes, Unrated, in French with subtitles.

Novelist, playwright, and film director Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) was one of the most respected names in 20th century French culture. Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were published collectively in 1963 as L'eau des Collines (Water of the Hills) and attained instant classic status. Few know that Pagnol also made twenty films and was his nation's first filmmaker elected to the Académie française.  Among his titles was 1940's La fille du puisatier (The Well Digger's Daughter). It was remade in 2011, directed by renowned actor Daniel Auteuil, who also stars in it. Auteuil (b. 1950) does Pagnol proud and his film rates as an overlooked gem.

Pagnol was prescient in his anticipation of World War Two. This film opens in the summer of 1939. Whispers of war are in the air, but the pace of life in Provence–the film's physical setting–unfolds according to time-honored rural patterns. Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil) is the titular well digger– a humble, honest, and exceedingly proud man who works hard at his craft. His is an important job in Provence, which is blessed with beauty and a Mediterranean climate, but cursed by exceedingly dry summers. At age 56, Pascal a bit long in the tooth for excavation work done mostly with pick and shovel–with assists from a bit of dynamite and a good-natured assistant named Félipe (Kad Merad). But what choice does he have? He's a widower with six daughters and only one has reached the age of majority: 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). She is Pascal's pride and joy–a considerate, comely lass who went finishing school in Paris, but returned to tend to Pascal and her sisters.

Bergès-Frisbey plays Patricia with a beguiling mix of sophistication and innocence. Her Parisian accent seems exotic to Provence locals, most of whom speak patois, yet she remains a Provençal rustic in all other ways. She is naively unaware of her natural beauty, or that she has acquired just enough polish to charm 26-year-old pilot Jacques Mazel (Nicholas Duvauchelle), the son of a merchant family. In village terms, the well-to-do Mazels are the equivalent of gentry, which places them well above the Amorettis on the social ladder. After just two meetings, Patricia surrenders her virginity to Jacques and finds herself pregnant.

As you can imagine, this complicates things. So too does the calendar. By October, France and Germany are at war and nobody knows what to expect. (For history buffs, the period between October 1939 and April of 1940 was a bit of cat-and-mouse jockeying sometimes called the "Phoney [sic] War." France will fall in June and Provence will eventually be under the Nazi collaborator Vichy government.) But one thing is certain: pilots like Jacques must report for duty–before he even knows about Patricia's condition, as it transpires. And let's not forget about Pascal's self-identity. It is 1939, after all, and an unwed mother-to-be is a synonym for whore. Who will save Pascal's pride? Maybe Félipe? Maybe not.  What ensues is a quintessential clash of wills–between the Amorettis and the Mazels, between Pascal and his equally pigheaded sister Nathalie (Marie-Anne Chazell), and between Pascal and himself. Further complications: Félipe also has his eyes on younger sister Amanda (Émilie Cazenave) and perhaps Patricia has ideas of her own. Plus, there's that pesky war to consider!

If this sounds like a typical French relationship film involving knots and naughtiness, rest assured that this one is a cut above. In some ways it plays like a mash between Far From the Madding Crowd and Ryan's Daughter, yet it's more innocent and playful than either. Although you might not know any of the actors other than Auteuil, it's very nicely acted all around. Auteuil makes us admire his principles one moment and wish to throttle him the next. Bergès-Frisbey deftly walks the tightrope between strong-willed and inexperienced, Cazenave is Auteuil's stubborn equal, and Rambert adds Falstaffian comic relief. Moreover, The Well Digger's Daughter is surprisingly sunny for a film about pride, ruination, betrayal, and war. Or maybe it's those sun-dappled, red-poppy saturated Provençal countryside. That alone makes this a worthy rental/download for a dark winter's night.

Rob Weir

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