Let "The Well-Digger's Daughter" take you back in time, not once but several times over.
This traditional French film tells the story of a complicated romance between a rich man's son and a poor man's daughter in the Provence region of a century ago, a time and place where that kind of love story was no easy thing.
"Daughter" is based on the classic work by Marcel Pagnol (who did his own adaptation in 1940 with actors Raimu and Fernandel). This new version is a chance for star Daniel Auteuil to revisit the world that elevated him to international prominence when he did films of two of Pagnol's other novels, "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," a quarter of a century ago.
But best of all "Daughter" marks a return to old-school French moviemaking, the kind of classically well-made endeavor that unrolls before us like a beloved tapestry. This is the kind of film they don't make anymore, only here it is.
We owe all of this to Auteuil, who not only stars but also did the screenplay adaptation of the novel and ended up directing the picture as well. As someone who grew up in Provence, Auteuil has a feeling for both the nourishing beauty of the countryside and the peculiarities of the people who lived there, especially in the warm but frank way they were depicted by Pagnol.
Although the situations and the characters in "Daughter" sound standard, nothing was stock in Pagnol's hands. He saw people, especially the well-digger Pascale played by Auteuil, in all their baffling and endearing complexity. The poetry of language and emotion we can encounter are often unexpected and always welcome.
Before we are introduced to Pascale, we see his beautiful daughter Patricia walking through olive trees carrying a basket. It is her 18th birthday, and she is taking her beloved father a special celebratory lunch.
But before that meal can begin, Patricia (played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, who went from this film to"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides") has a brief but telling flirtation at a rushing stream with Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the arrogant but perceptive only son of one of the town's richest merchants.
After Patricia delivers the lunch, we hear more about her as Pascale, a widower with six daughters, chats with his kindly but homely assistant Felipe (Kad Merad). Though he at one point allowed Patricia to live in Paris for years as the companion of a wealthy woman, he is beyond grateful that she returned home to care for her five siblings after the death of her mother.
"She's as kind as she is pretty," he says to Felipe. "She isn't a daughter, she's a treasure from the Good Lord." Felipe, who would like nothing better than to marry Patricia, needs no convincing.
Coincidence throws Patricia and Jacques together more than once, and though the young woman is convent educated, she is too much in love for anything else to matter. "I'm not myself anymore," she confesses to him. "I'm someone else."
What does matter in the lives of these young people is the looming and increasingly insistent presence of World War I as well as the attitudes of both her father and Jacques' parents. We can see where things are going in "The Well-Digger's Daughter," but only to a point, and surprise is integrated with familiarity in moving ways.