Tuesday, April 4, 2017
There's no good reason why Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring should have been two films rather than one. They were shot together over the course of seven months, but released separately, Manon following Jean after about three months. Shown together as one film, they would total some 230 minutes -- only a bit longer than Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) at 212 minutes or Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) at 222 minutes. But the length of those films seems consistent with their epic pretensions, whereas Jean/Manon together amount to a domestic melodrama -- an entertaining one, with a beautiful Provençal setting, but far from an epic. Their separate releases feel a bit like a con -- as in economics. Films of that blockbuster length are a drag on the exhibitor, who must schedule fewer showings per day, so it probably made sense to release Jean, which unabashedly announces at the end that it's "part one," to whet an appetite for Manon, whose posters announced it as the second part of Jean de Florette. Voilà! double the box office take. In fact, Manon of the Spring had been filmed before, by Marcel Pagnol in 1952, and it had been a long film, as much as four hours, before being cut by the distributor. Pagnol was so upset by this experience that he turned the screenplay into a novel, L'Eau des Collines, adding the story of Manon's father, Jean, which had been only a backstory in his film. And it's this novel that Claude Berri decided to adapt into his two films. The problem I see, having just watched Berri's films back to back, is that there's not quite enough material for two. Jean de Florette is an overextended prequel, introducing the characters of César Soubeyran (Yves Montand) and his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), and their villainous attempt to cut off the water supply to Jean (Gérard Depardieu), the newcomer who inherits the estate they covet. Or perhaps Manon of the Spring is a thinly developed sequel, in which Jean's daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her father. If Jean had been trimmed of some of the scenes of Jean raising rabbits and Manon of some of the shots of Manon gamboling with her goats in the hills -- as well as the romantic subplot involving the new village schoolteacher (Hippolyte Girardot) -- both stories could have fitted nicely into one movie. Manon climaxes with a scene in which César learns an uncomfortable truth about Jean's parentage, but Berri and co-screenwriter Gérard Brach drag the film out after that revelation, which should have been left to make its impact. Still, Berri's films have much to recommend them, especially the performances of Montand, Auteuil, and Depardieu (the last is sorely missed in the second film) and the beautiful cinematography of Bruno Nuytten. Jean-Claude Petit's score makes good use of themes from the overture to Giuseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino.