The Well Digger's Daughter| B-
Gorgeously shot, old fashioned in its storytelling, and sentimental as hell, French film star Daniel Auteuil's directorial debut is an unabashed throwback to the tidy, populist melodramas of yesteryear.
With the film set in Provence on the eve of World War I, Auteuil plays Pascal, a humble, well-digging widower and father to five daughters. His eldest and loveliest, 18-year-old Patricia (pouty-lipped Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is seduced by a dashing young pilot named Jacques, whose father owns the general store. When Jacques is suddenly called up for duty, he leaves a note for Patricia declaring his good intentions. Of course, his mother burns the note, leaving the well digger's daughter heartbroken. Worse, she discovers she's pregnant. Hand wringing, tears and family shame ensue.
Marcel Pagnol's source novel must have been pretty scandalous stuff in the 1940s, but here the story seems quaint and a bit overwrought. Though Auteuil's affection and enthusiasm for the material shines through every frame of the film and his cast is first-rate, his approach is simple and unchallenging, never daring to re-imagine the story as anything other than the melodrama is was constructed to be. Compare this to the Pagnol adaptations that launched his career as an actor — Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring — and the contrast couldn't be starker. Those two films had an epic sense of tragedy, unveiling the best and worst of human behavior in the most modest of settings. The Well Digger's Daughter has plenty of conflict, but none of it seems particularly high stakes. Auteuil is all too happy to drink in the bucolic, sun-dappled landscape of Provence, but rarely lingers on the emotional complexities of his characters. Nearly every one is portrayed with some level of decency, even if they make terrible mistakes. This could have provided an interesting exploration into human nature — particularly at a time when gender and class roles were being challenged — but instead renders the story weightless and, ultimately, inconsequential.
Still, there are incidental delights for those who cotton to this sort of thing. Auteuil is both dignified and commanding as Pascal, the old-school story is delivered with heartfelt sincerity, and there's a kind of modest Masterpiece Theater charm that'll appeal to audiences hungering for simple emotions and a reassuring sense of humanity.
Shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, and at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900).