"Manon of the Spring" (opening Friday at the Royal) brings Marcel Pagnol's great "Water of the Hills" saga, which began with "Jean de Florette," to a towering conclusion. Together, the two films constitute a landmark in French cinema, a tribute to the late writer.
Every frame of both films speaks of the reverence with which director Claude Berri and his co-writer, Gerard Brach, regard the wise and earthy spirit of Pagnol, who transformed his 1952 film "Manon des Sources" into a two-part novel after it was released in a truncated version.
To watch "Jean de Florette" and then "Manon of the Spring" is to be brought in touch with the most fundamental emotions and with nature at its most elemental. In this parched, gray era of moral relativity, they tackle the great themes of good and evil, of injustice and retribution, and of tragedy brought about by pride and greed and triggered by fate. In their grasp of human nature, these films provide a richness of experience with simplicity that such contemporary morality plays as "Wall Street" or even the especially dazzling "Broadcast News" cannot hope to evoke. What's at stake here is not merely careers but life and death itself.
Before seeing "Manon of the Spring," you must first see "Jean de Florette," which continues at the Westside Pavilion. To feel the full impact of "Manon," you need to experience firsthand just how hateful Cesar became in the first film. There has not been a screen character within memory who worked up such sheer loathing in the viewer as Yves Montand's Cesar Soubeyran, the stern Provencal farmer who for his own gain systematically destroys his neighbor, the gentle, trusting hunchback Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu).
Now it's 10 years later, which takes us to the mid-'30s. The hunchback's small daughter Manon has grown up to become an astonishingly beautiful shepherdess (Emmanuelle Beart). She lives with the kindly Baptistine (Margarita Lozano) while her mother (Elisabeth Depardieu) has left to try to resume her career as an opera singer.
Having consolidated the family fortune at the hunchback's expense, the elderly Cesar, who never married in the wake of a thwarted first love, declares that his homely, somewhat simple nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) must marry to carry on the family name. Ugolin has his heart set on the ravishing Manon.
"Manon of the Spring" reminds us how gratifying good old-fashioned revenge can be. Yet the film makers also remind us that carrying vengeance too far is ultimately futile and self-destructive. This is not a revenge drama but a tragedy--albeit one not without an earthy humor--in which Cesar, out of the workings of fate and his own character, experiences a revelation fully as devastating as that experienced by Oedipus.
As Cesar, Montand caps a remarkable career with a portrayal that will rank high in screen annals. Transforming himself into an aged, mustachioed peasant, he views the world through shrewd, narrowed eyes, foolishly self-congratulatory over the cleverness of his evil. From the cold, triumphant calculator of the first film, he becomes the frail, lonely and ultimately vulnerable old man of the second. So calmly authoritative and dignified, so deeply reflective an actor is Montand that he is able to elicit pity for Cesar even after having stirred up so much hatred for him. Auteuil, a brilliant young actor, tears you apart with his Ugolin, a simple fellow whose good instincts are hopelessly corrupted by his dominating uncle.
It is a measure of Berri's ability to communicate a passion for even the most hardscrabble land, that Beart's Manon comes across as a true child of nature rather than the White Rock maiden. Manon may dance in the nude while playing her father's harmonica, but she is no forest sprite. She is an intelligent and resourceful young woman. And Beart, who is remindful of the young Danielle Darrieux, is as talented as she is beautiful. Hippolyte Girardot is the village's handsome new teacher who pursues her; Yvonne Gamy is the blind old woman who inadvertently provides Cesar with his shattering moment of truth.
For all their strong elements of Greek tragedy, "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring" are not theater pieces but instead add up to a great, intimate screen epic in which cinematographer Bruno Nuytten's clear, unadorned images depict a harsh, timeless way of life. There is a majestic quality to the films that is heightened by Jean-Claude Petit's discreet yet full-bodied score, which has an appropriate theme inspired by Verdi's "La Forza del Destino." Seen separately or together (the second is perhaps the ideal situation), "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring" (rated PG for adult themes, some nudity) provide an extraordinarily rewarding experience.