"Jean de Florette" (at the Royal) is like good peasant bread: honest, chewy, unsurprising and heavily satisfying. Its two hours are the first part of Claude Berri's four-hour adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's 'L'Eau des Collines" ("Water of the Hills"), an epic novel of Provence, where so many of the Pagnol-directed films were set.
Set in the 1920s, it's a story that Zola might relish, a frightful tale of money, property, greed and deception, revolves around the only spring on a piece of hilly Midi farmland. A tragicomedy of character and place, it is zestfully well acted by Gerard Depardieu, Yves Montand and an actor relatively new to us, Daniel Auteuil, who attack their roles with the savor of the old Pagnol comedy-melodrama players, broad Provencal accent and all.
Pagnol originally made this complete story as a film in 1952, "Manon des Sources" ("Manon of the Springs"). Almost five hours long, it was disappointingly received. Pagnol then re-wrote his film into a massive, two-volume novel, which traced the story of Manon's father, Jean de Florette, and his arrival in this area--the southeast of France, bordering Italy. It is that book and not the Pagnol film which director Berri, with co-adapter Gerard Brach, used as the basis for "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Springs."
Shot together on a marathon 9-month schedule, they are being released here separately, as they were in France, with the second film due around Christmas. They do stand alone--unless "Jean de Florette" makes you so impatient for this brand of intricate, old-fashioned, solid storytelling that it seems impossible to wait.
The alternative in that case would seem to be a trip to Paris.
The Jean of this piece is an almost nobly well-intentioned innocent, the young hunchbacked city dweller, Jean de Florette (Depardieu), who moves wife Aimee, a former opera singer (Elisabeth Depardieu, the actor's own wife) and young daughter Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna) to this hardscrabble "paradise," to live out their lives "returning to the wild" on the property he has inherited from his mother. That single act changes Jean's life and brings him into conflict with the richest old farmer in the area, Cesar Soubeyran (Montand).
Proud and patriarchal, Soubeyran is called Le Papet--Granddad--but his only family is his slack-jawed, easily swayed young nephew, Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil). Nevertheless, it is Ugolin who will eventually inherit the Soubeyran estate. Each man has his dream of what that land will yield: Ugolin favors a cash crop of carnations; Soubeyran, a cathedral-like orchard. But if anything is to grow on this rocky, forbidding soil, water will have to come from the spring on Jean de Florette's land. To discourage Jean from settling for long, the villainous Soubeyrans have secretly stopped up the spring.
Depardieu and Montand are a dream pairing. The purity and physical assurance of Depardieu's Jean, in spite of his affliction, is the lodestar of this first film. It's almost unendurable to watch him apply book knowledge to farming; to succeed by inches and fail by yards, only to admit his mistakes and attack the problem from another side.
Circumventing him at almost every turn is the wily Soubeyran, whose tactics are such that Jean never sees his neighbors in their true light, but believes them to be honorable men like himself. It's one of the richest performances in memory by Montand--weary that his irony almost always passes over his cloddish nephew's head, but ironic to the core. Theoretically, we will have even more of Montand in the second part.
The tender support of Elisabeth Depardieu and Mazurowna's young Manon are a perfect complement to the blindly optimistic Jean. Something about the little high-heeled boots and long sweaters of this city-bred wife recall Jeanne Moreau's costuming from "Jules and Jim" and remind us that we are, incongruously enough, in the 20th and not the 19th Century. It's a shock, like the bus at the film's opening; this land seems decades removed from the automobile or a glimpse of leg.
The last central character is the place itself. Bruno Nuytten, who photographed "The Name of the Rose," uses lighting which burnishes these gray stones and olive trees, peers warmly into the kerosene-lit dark of these stone houses, and creates a sulfurous swirl when a windstorm attacks the De Florette's farm.
To accompany these poetic visuals, to underline their timelessness and sense of fate, the musical score quotes Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," adapted for the virtuoso harmonica of Toots Thielemans. That may be pushing things, but for the most part, you have the sense that Pagnol would have savored every moment of this superlative storytelling. (Its PG rating is for two moments of violence that might disturb the very young.)