French film “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” gives us a likable case of how good storytelling can engage, surprise, and touch us. While its main characters may be broad and simple, they are presented as people filled with life and personality, and its several apparent melodramatic devices actually serve the story better than expected as we come to care about not only its young heroine but also other characters around her.
For Pascal Amoretti (Daniel Auteuil, who also directed the film), a middle-aged well-digger in some country village in Provence, his daughter Patricia (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) is the most precious one among his six daughters left by his dead wife. When Patricia was very young, some rich lady kindly took her to Paris for providing her better environment and education, and that makes Patricia look a lot different from her sisters or other girls in her class. After the recent death of her benefactor, she came back to her hometown while being her father’s dutiful daughter in their household like her sisters, but she looks more like a fair lady rather than a mere country girl as the opening scene shows her walking across the field with the lunch basket for Pascal and his employee Félipe (Kad Merad).
Because she is now 18, Pascal has been considering marrying off his daughter to someone suitable for her, and Félipe looks like a good match in his view. Although this nice guy is a bit too old for Patricia, it looks like an ideal marriage to her father; besides having enough money to support a family as her future husband, Félipe likes Patricia a lot, and Pascal is certainly glad that his loyal employee is willing to be a new member of his big happy family.
Patricia does not like Félipe enough to marry him, but she goes along with the plan because of one of her sisters who has been hoping for Félipe’s attention. She and Félipe soon have their first official date at the air show held in a nearby town, and that is where she meets again Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a young, handsome pilot she came across in the forest when she was bringing the lunch to Pascal and Félipe. Whatever was faintly felt between them during their previous brief encounter attracts them more to each other than before, and that eventually leads to a day to remember for Jacques and Patricia while poor Félipe has no idea on what is going on behind his back.
However, there is a matter of class in this budding romantic relationship. Jacques is the son of a rich village store owner, and that means his parents will not easily approve of their son’s relationship with a common girl from poor background no matter how much she looks fair and pretty. When he has to leave his home after receiving a sudden order from his unit, Jacques asks his mother to send his letter to Patricia, but, like many hysterically protective mothers in those TV soap dramas, Jacques’ mother hastily decides that Patricia is not good enough for her adorable son, and that results in a quietly heartbreaking moment during one sunny afternoon.
While the story becomes darker with the shadow of the World War I, the movie steadily maintains its relaxed narrative pace as serving us with small intimate moments which reveal more about its characters. While her innocence is gone after her relationship with Jacques and its following consequence, Patricia turns out to be a resilient girl with integrity as admirable as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and she even refuses an easy option of getting out of her impending difficult circumstance at one point. Although he is visibly upset to hear about her daughter’s serious trouble, Pascal tries to do his best for his ‘lost daughter’ as a man of down-to-earth dignity, and we have no doubt about that even when he comes to make a hard decision on his dear daughter. While he often looks dim-witted, Félipe turns out to be a lot more decent and caring than we thought, and we also come to see that Jacques’ stiff parents have their own feelings, though it goes without saying that they were very cruel to Patricia and her family from the very beginning.
The movie is a remake of the 1940 film written and directed by Marcel Pagnol, and I heard that Auteuil’s screenplay is mostly faithful to the original story except that the background is changed from the 1940s to the 1910s in the remake version. Besides playwriting and filmmaking, Pagnol also wrote several novels, and some of them were later adapted into excellent films such as Claude Berri’s 1986 films “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring” and Yves Robert’s 1990 films “My Father’s Glory” and “My Mother’s Castle”.
All of these movies, which deserve to be known more for good reasons, are beautiful to watch mainly thanks to those gorgeous landscapes of Provence, and “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” is no exception. Its rural locations are wonderfully captured on the screen with warm, unadorned natural beauty, and Alexandre Desplat’s understated but delicate score is judiciously used along with a number of different versions of Neapolitan song “Core ‘Ngrato” on the soundtrack.
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter” is the first feature film directed by Daniel Auteuil, a renowned French actor who drew my attention for the first time through his memorable turn in Michael Haneke’s disturbingly baffling masterpiece “Caché” (2005). The movie shows his competent handling of mood, performance, and storytelling, and Auteuil has already made two films based on Pagnol’s plays since this successful directorial debut (he was also one of the main characters in “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring”, by the way). With the vivid sense of life surrounding its characters, its crucial plot turns feel like surprises rather than contrivances, and it surely earns its ending like its heroine does in the end.