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At 62, the actor Daniel Auteuil is French film royalty, a Renaissance man equally at home in comedy, drama, thrillers — or, given his perennial air of faintly amused irony, some combination of all three. An off-kilter looker, Auteuil fairly oozes Gallic urbanity, so it's easy to forget that he launched his prolific career playing a conniving rustic in 1986's Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon of the Spring, both directed by Claude Berri and adapted from novels by the writer-director Marcel Pagnol.
Now, in his first outing as a director, Auteuil pays homage to Pagnol with a remake of his 1940 film The Well-Digger's Daughter, the story of an upstanding but hidebound Provence peasant who's dragged into the modern age by an unexpected pregnancy in the family. Slack and paunchy in a stained singlet, Auteuil plays Pascale Amoretti, an irascible codger who knows what he knows and refuses to learn more despite the shifting sands of a France mired in World War I.
Tragedy and disappointment have already touched Pascale: His late, beloved wife gave him daughters instead of longed-for sons, and he adapted with equanimity. But he still inhabits an ancient groove of autocratic absolutism, and when Patricia (the luscious Astrid Berges-Frisbey), the Paris-educated daughter he views as a candidate for sainthood, gets knocked up by the feckless son of prosperous local shopkeepers, Pascale does his damnedest to avoid facing the profound changes that loom over his family.
Auteuil smoothly handles a distinguished ensemble featuring Sabine Azema as Jacques' histrionic meddler of a mother, Jean-Pierre Darroussin as his stoical, decent father, and the French-Algerian actor Kad Merad as a kindly yokel who knows he hasn't a prayer of winning Patricia away from her glamour boy (Nicolas Duvauchelle), but who keeps his suit on the boil until all hope is lost.
The Well-Digger's Daughter tells a simple, humanistic tale of fall and redemption, dwelling on love in all its forms, from carnal to domestic; on the pleasures and danger of innocence; on varieties of goodness and betrayal; on the constraints of class; on compassion and forgiveness. This is familiar stuff, and at times Auteuil's fondness for his characters and his gentle nostalgia for France's rural past allow the story to sag. And truth be told, perhaps there was no pressing reason to remake Pagnol's film.
But if Auteuil's homage lacks the wicked delight in native cunning that spiked Berri's reading of Pagnol in Jean de Florette and Manon, it makes an affecting tribute to the lush physicality of the Berri films and to Provence, where Auteuil grew up. From the opening shot of a lovely young girl picking her way through a field dotted with red poppies, to the camera's final pan away from a reunited family happily going about its business outside an old stone house, The Well-Digger's Daughter offers a fervent poem to the region's abundant beauty.
Auteuil is hardly the first to sing the praises of Provence, but he sings with a passion eloquent enough to give nostalgia a good name. Alexandre Desplat's lyrical score stops just short of saccharine — if anything, the movie's finest music comes from the wind that rustles through the greenery, bringing with it a painful but necessary realignment of emotions and a fierce reassertion of family solidarity.
Like Jean de Florette, The Well-Digger's Daughter will likely bring a fresh burst of visitors to a region that hardly needs boosting. It's easy to make fun of movie tourists who flock to the "homes" of people who don't exist. But when, in the film, a startlingly blue van wends its way through the overgrown green lanes to Pascale's humble home, you really do yearn to be in this place, at this time, with these people struggling to fit themselves into a new world — one in which a poor man's daughter may marry up not for money or position, but for love and for the sake of a new generation. (Recommended)