Over the years I've been watching netflix movies, I like to give myself film festivals from various countries and directors. I've done Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, China, Germany, Italy, Poland and independent USA. I've been putting off the French, having a pretty good idea that when I jump into French films, I won't want to see anything else for a long time. In film, the French have that je ne sais quoi (I don't know what) particular to the French and runs through all French art forms, cooking for example. Polish director, Kieslowski, moved to Paris and transcended himself. I've seen French films from my first years of watching foreign films, 1962. and appreciate their subtleties like no others. In I think it was 1966 or 67 I took an overnight train to New York specifically to see the new French film of the moment, A Man and a Woman. Anouk Aimee was in it. She had been in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, my first film with subtitles, and 8 1/2. I also saw on that trip Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo on stage. During college years I went to New York about every other year to see plays and contemporary art. Went to Museum of Modern Art every trip. Then the admission fee became so expensive I had to remind myself memory would do. In London museums, you just walk in. Two French films that are part one and part two of the same story arrived in the mailbox a few days ago, Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring. They were made from the writings of Marcel Pagnol, popular French writer of the 20th Century, also film maker. Seeing it at the top of the Q, I told myself the French film festival has begun.
I took the dvd out of the envelope and saw it was four hours long. I wasn't ready for a marathon film. I didn't watch it. Another French film came the next day, Army of Crime, so I watched it. I decided yesterday to watch half of the four hour film and half the next day. I could do that. I set the film in motion and was hooked within five minutes. I was ready to go the whole four hours. It started with the film, Jean de Florette. I noted right away major French actors in it, Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Despardieu, and Elisabeth Despardieu. I settled back into my chair seeing something on the order of an epic begin to unfold. The scenery, the buildings, the village, the landscape, mountainous southern France, had the look and feel of the realism in pre-Impressionist paintings by Millet and Courbet. The film looked at all times like a painting from that period. Claude Berri, the director, accomplished not just that likeness, but got the feel of the local people and their culture, rural France before electricity. The people of the village in the film were local people from the place the film was made. Much of the time it didn't even seem like a film, but like being there in the midst of the people and their lives. The story had the 19th Century manner of Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy, a well told story of human nature acting out. I see so much in this film I want to tell you about, but don't want to cross the line into telling too much. YouTube has videos of the trailers of the two films and several scenes from it. It was released in 1986. It has a turn toward the end I did not see coming. The story starts on a whim and ends being told to a priest in a deathbed confession. I don't think anything I expected might happen even came close. Pagnol told a good story full of surprises. I think I especially liked that a whim kicked it off, a whim that grew way out of control in ways nobody could foresee.
I had settled in my mind to sit through the four hours. At the same time, I was thinking about pausing it for awhile and having an intermission, End of Part One. Turn the disc over for Part Two. I turned it off and decided to see the second side tomorrow (today). Part Two was titled Manon of the Spring. Manon is a girl's name and the spring is a ground water spring. In the first story, Jean de Florette, the girl is young, a child, and she's up in her teens in Manon of the Spring. She is played by Emmanuelle Beart, the French beauty of her moment with the innocent, untouched charisma of early Bridget Bardot. She's a woman who runs with the goats. A herd of goats goes with her wherever she goes. Donkeys were in the story, and mules. The story has for me the powerful impact of a film like Life of Pi, a powerful impact. It goes along like a regular story and then it turns into something so much bigger than what I thought it was, it changed everything that went before. The great actor, Yves Montand, played it so right he became it. And Daniel Auteuil is an actor you'd have to see a lot of French films for him to be familiar. He is one of the great French actors of now, who was younger then. I found a recent film with Auteuil in it, The Well-Digger's Daughter, and ran it to the top of my Q. Found a few more French films to add to the Q. I'm still stunned by how powerful these films are. It's one of those very rare stories that surprises you such at the end that it sends your mind reviewing the story backwards all the way to the first scene and jaw drops. It was a tour de force, a very powerful force. And it was so beautiful it was lush with beauty from scene to scene.