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PARIS — Following 2011’s moderately successful The Well-Digger’s Daughter, actor-turned-director Daniel Auteuil continues his ongoing resurrection of Marcel Pagnol’s classic oeuvre in the superbly performed and polished romantic drama, Marius. Part one of the great French playwright/filmmaker’s Marseilles Trilogy — which includes the simultaneously released Fanny and the not-yet-made Cesar — this gut-wrenching love story between a wannabe sailor and a sprightly salesgirl is carried by young stars Raphael Personnaz and Victoire Belezy, with Auteuil backing them up in a role initially, and famously, portrayed by the legendary Raimu.
Of course, this massive four-film undertaking by writer-director Auteuil and producers Alain Sarde and Jerome Seydoux begs the question: Pourquoi? Why would anyone ever want to reboot the Pagnol franchise, especially when the original movies (the first Marius dates from 1931 and was directed by Alexandre Korda) are considered among the foremost works of French cinema’s Golden Age?
Yet despite what in essence is a fairly theatrical, even academic adaptation of Pagnol’s stage play, the graceful performances, unbeatable Marseillais accents (Auteuil’s especially) and beautifully rendered scenery all do justice to the source material, allowing the text to basically speak for itself. As such, this two-part Pathe release should attract both fans and newbies for its wide summer rollout, while the package could also be marketed to Francophiles in Europe and the U.S. (where Daughter made just under $400K in theaters).
Set along Marseilles’ bustling Old Port in the 1920s, the story follows the amorous travails of the sea-gazing Marius (Personnaz), who, when he’s not working at the café of his straight-talking dad, Cesar (Auteuil), has his eyes on 18-year-old shellfish seller Fanny (Belezy). But Marius’ dreams of sailing away on a merchant ship, not to mention his inability to admit his feelings, push Fanny into the arms of local factory owner Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) — a man more than twice her age, yet with enough capital and common sense to seal the deal.
Things come to a head when Marius both confesses his love for Fanny and signs up for the next ship leaving port, placing the young couple in an impossible situation that can only be resolved by a life-changing compromise. Meanwhile, Cesar watches it all happen from behind closed doors, doing his best to appease the minds of his friends and neighbors, while offering his son advice he knows will be ignored.
Despite what sounds, and sometimes plays out, like a working-class soap opera, Pagnol’s genius is evident in the way emotions are often distilled through the characters’ winsome Southern attitudes, creating an atmosphere infused with playful humor, innate wit and an endless flow of alcohol, which Cesar expertly mixes behind his bar (he even gives us the full recipe for his favorite cocktail).
Auteuil is very much aware of this, doing his best to insert laughs and warmth whenever possible, with most of the light-hearted moments divided between himself and Darroussin — both of whom know the terrain, the former having grown up in Avignon and the latter having starred in several films by Marseilles auteur Robert Guediguian. Opposite the seasoned duo, Personnaz (The Princess of Montpensier) and newcomer Belezy fill their young couple with a burgeoning carnal passion that grows alongside their dilemma, although this very old-school fable tactfully leaves any lovemaking offscreen.
Accompanying the performances is an expert tech package topped by Jean-Francois Robin’s colorful lensing, Christian Marti’s classy set designs (using both real and studio locations) and Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s handsome period costumes. Alexandre Desplat’s simple yet effective melodies are seamlessly mixed with the drama, which is capped off poignantly by Charles Trenet’s standard, “La Mer.”
Production companies: A.S. Films, Zack Films, Pathe
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Victoire Belezy, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Raphael Personnaz, Marie-Anne Chazel
Director-screenwriter: Daniel Auteuil, based on the play by Marcel Pagnol
Producers: Alain Sarde, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Jean-Francois Robin
Production designer: Christian Marti
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Joelle Hache
Sales agent: Pathe International
No rating, 93 minutes
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