It was in the wee hours of St Stephen’s Day (the day after Christmas) about 12 years ago that I first watched Claude Berri’s 1986 film Jean de Florette. I remember it was really flipping cold outside and some snow, I think, may have fallen that day. So suffice to say that watching a sun-drenched epic set in the south of France while sitting in a barely fire-lit living room amongst the frosty hills of north-west Ireland was a fairly memorable experience. I followed up with the second part, Manon des Sources the night afterwards. Combined together, the two films clock in at 233 minutes – about the same length as Gone with the Wind – so breaking the story up into two parts over two nights was a welcome strategy from the national broadcaster! I have since seen both films twice again and I never tire of the natural beauty of the Provence region that oozes out of the screen.
And I wasn’t the only one – apparently after the films’ release in 1986, the region seen an influx of visitors and also an increase in summer properties being built there, mainly by rich Brits (Jean de Florette was successful at the BAFTAS in 1987). It is amazing how a film can have such an impact on tourism but it commonly happens (see the recent frenzy of interest shown for taking the boat out to Skellig Michael since Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the New Zealand/Lord of the Rings phenomenon). I have not been to Provence but damn, every time I hear Jean Claude Petit’s mournful score (from Verdi’s ‘La Forza del Destino’) in the first scene and the shot of Ugolin (played by the brilliant Daniel Auteuil) arriving back to the countryside after time in the army, I cannot help but feel the urge to go online and book a holiday there immediately.
With a cleverly designed plot, enjoyable characterisations, brilliant acting and, as we have clarified, magnificent settings, one could be in little doubt to hail this unequivocally French double feature as a masterpiece. And despite what other critics have said, I am happy to proclaim it as such.
Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were both filmed over seven months in 1985. The screenplays were adapted by Claude Berri (with help from Gérard Brach – Roman Polanski’s old mate) from an earlier 1952 film by Marcel Pagnol, which he subsequently novelised into two books in the 1960s – collectively brought together under the title L’eau des Collines (‘The Water of the Hills’). The filming was an extremely costly project for the time but was directly supported by the Socialist French Government of the 1980s and specifically, the then Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, who was attempting to push a trend in heritage or period cinema by allocating funds to such projects. This trend was pushed for a number of reasons: to capture an idyllic beauty of the French countryside and in turn to generate tourism but also to make films appear less Hollywood-inspired (i.e. violent, trashy and gratuitous) and more unique, accessible and respectable, with a genuine sense of the grassroots. One could argue from this that the trend was nazi-esque or xenophobic in its function but it was far from it. With the high potential of being historically inaccurate, the films had a purposeful openness and empathy towards other cultures. Basically, they were saying that the country wasn’t that bad in the past.
Indeed, heritage cinema had begun to be quite successful throughout Europe at the time, namely Britain. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory had perfected the ‘middle brow’ English period style film with a host of similarly adapted Shakespearean or classic literature films from the early 60s onwards. Stanley Kubrick’s decadent period piece, Barry Lyndon, was made by a British production company and partially filmed in Ireland in 1975. Along with the Merchant-Ivory productions, Lyndon provided a catalyst for more similar features to be produced along these lines (e.g. Ridley Scott’s debut The Duellists). Significantly, Hugh Hudson’s 1920s-set sports drama Chariots of Fire was an Oscar triumph in 1981 and thus, initiated a further swathe of aesthetically pleasing, high-budget historical pictures to come out of the country throughout the rest of the decade and beyond (A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Maurice, Sense and Sensibility, The Kings Speech).
The success of this form was promptly utilised by other directors throughout the rest of Europe too. These included Berri in France, Gabriel Axel in Denmark and Giuseppe Tornatore in Italy. The region/town/village in which their films are set deliberately stand out as a special, beautiful and quaint place, and although the nearness of world strife or war may be alluded to, the people are living in a past time where they are generally happy with their lot. Something that sets films like Jean de Florette apart in the heritage cinema cosmos is the conveyance of a deep marriage between human and country – there are elements of the spiritual world as well as the human spirit at play and it makes for a very intriguing balance when combined with the development of a parable-like plot.
The plot in Jean de Florette goes as such: Ugolin wants to grow carnation flowers high up in the mountains where he has inherited a plot and he concocts a plan with his uncle, Papet (played by the legendary Yves Montand), to make the project a success and make himself rich in the process. Without spoiling too much if you haven’t seen it, the plan becomes complicated by the arrival of an ‘outsider’, a humpback named Jean Cadoret (played by the usually over-acting Gérard Depardieu), who along with his wife and young daughter have moved back to the country of his mother’s birth and taken residence in her old cottage. The plot generally revolves around a water source and how it prompts an unstoppable manifestation of ugliness and greed in people. As Roger Ebert commented on it in his review in 1987: ‘the point of the film is not to create suspense but to capture…the feeling that the land is so important the human spirit can be sacrificed to it’.
Daniel Auteuil as Ugolin
Yves Montand as César Soubeyran (Papet)
Gérard Depardieu as Jean
The story is deliberately slow-paced and presented over two parts to give a balanced ‘before and after’ of a tragic event that galvanises the plot. You would be forgiven for having watched the first part and not tune in for the second, considering the investment of time that it necessitates, but I do think it is worthwhile to follow through and anyway, Manon des Sources has handsome people such as Emmanuelle Beart and Hippolyte Girardot in it!
Emmanuelle Béart as Manon
Also, there is a distinct aesthetic and grand cinematic style to the two pictures that I just cannot help but fall in love with – maybe this is shallow of me but I cannot be alone here. The film was hugely profitable in France and was bought into quite substantially by worldwide audiences too. Berri, who was working under the heritage cinema guise and clearly with a lot of money in his pocket, brilliantly utilises a wide-angle, deep focus in camerawork so as to render the background setting a separate character. His attention to detail is highly commendable. Leone and Kubrick were masters of this technique in the 60s and 70s. You can argue that Sydney Pollack managed this equally as well with Out of Africa too but I don’t think Florette or Sources were as overly melodramatic as that film. In fact, I think the balance between melodrama and reality is sharply commandeered in the storyline. There is as much a sense of the non-spiritual as there is of the spiritual portrayed here.
In fact, the use of non-spiritual natural forces in the narrative is actually quite profound. The seasons are shown to change dramatically throughout the two films, as they would anywhere I guess, but this is obviously an important aspect for the plot – without rain, the earth will dry and the life it attempts to procure will die. Whereas some of the characters may believe that the weather is divinely orchestrated and can be somehow influenced with prayer and worship, there is no doubt that this divinity does not exist in the world that Jean inhabits, even if he relentlessly disagrees. Instead there is circumstance and chance. Having stated this pragmatism, there is an inescapable empathy shown for the ‘good’ characters such as Jean and his family, which makes it slightly heartbreaking. As the sun shines right out though the screen, you cannot help but acknowledge the sweat and the hardship that the characters experience – I remember gasping for a glass of cider when I watched that dynamite scene first. As Jean shouts to the heavens for rain, I found myself shouting in disgust too. Oh for the follies of faith…or indeed, the follies of fate.
Despite drought, despair and tragedy, the world of Jean de Florette (the film that is) continues, transforming as it does into Manon des Sources, set a few years after the first film ends. The weather continues to change with the seasons year in, year out. Rain may come, rain may not come but the sun will always be there. The farmers continue to speculate about outsiders but the outsiders still come. The elaborate plan by Ugolin and Papet continues to evolve beyond itself but the legendary story of Jean de Florette will be forever retold.
There is no doubt that both films were an extraordinary experience for me at the time and with repeated watches, they still remain so. The exceedingly gorgeous countryside of Les Romarins has had an indelible mark on my soul and this, you may gasp, just from watching a film? But these are the powers that can potentially come from a masterpiece. At that, I would enthuse anybody interested in film who haven’t seen these two examples to go and find the time to watch them…while I must go and book my holiday to Provence.