Pastoral, old-fashioned and distinctively French, “The Well-Digger’s Daughter” is veteran actor and first-time director Daniel Auteuil’s heartfelt remake of the 1940 film by Marcel Pagnol, the novelist, playwright and director known for humanist tales of early-20th-century working-class life in Provence.
Terrific in front of the camera and sincere behind it, Auteuil delivers an unchallenging but enjoyable story of familial and romantic love.
Auteuil’s Pagnol connection goes back to the actor’s 1986 roles in Claude Berri’s notable “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring,” and this new film, while not as superior, similarly embraces France’s rural past and the spirit of its denizens.
The focus is a father-daughter relationship. The setting is a rustic World War I-era town where winds are shifting.
Auteuil plays Pascale Amoretti, a decent but morally rigid well-digger with six daughters, including Paris-schooled, 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).
Regarding Patricia as his “princess,” Pascale hopes she will marry Felipe (Kad Merad), his kindly employee. Patricia, however, desires Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a pilot with a wealthy merchant father, a motorbike and seduction skills.
After giving in to Jacques’ advances, Patricia gets pregnant, Jacques goes to the front and Pascal becomes intensely conflicted over whether to support his daughter in her predicament or to preserve his “honor.”
When Jacques’ parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Sabine Azema) make it obvious they don’t want their son to marry a working-class girl, Pascale banishes Patricia.
Pascale softens after one look at his grandson, naturally. His change of heart and other developments lead to a climax containing confessions, resolutions and affirmations of family unity and romantic love.
Auteuil, who also wrote the screenplay, does nothing particularly relevant or hard-hitting in his adaptation, and he isn’t the smoothest of navigators. What begins as sunny domestic melodrama becomes something close to comic farce, and the tonal inconsistency weakens the impact.
Still, Auteuil offers an entertaining, immersing melange of peasantry, poetry, realism and changing times. While his nostalgia is sometimes problematic because some attitudes depicted are not embraceable, he triumphs in depicting the constant human struggle between expectations of society and dictates of the heart.
The acting is superb. Auteuil, giving Pascale the depth and gradations necessary to transcend the cliche of an ignorant rustic with a poetic soul, leads the pack.
REVIEW: The Well-Digger’s Daughter ★★★