At times, the French countryside of Jean De Florette and Manon Of The Spring is almost unbearably beautiful. French director Claude Berri and cinematographer Bruno Nuytten set their two-part morality play against a backdrop of gorgeous French countryside full of color-changing leaves and wildflowers, tangled thickets and bubbling rivulets. Only the people are ugly, as if to underline the theme that nature can be cruelly indifferent, but it takes humanity to actually bring malicious intent to the table.
The two films, shot concurrently and released sequentially in 1986, have an odd pedigree: They adapt a pair of '60s novels by famed French playwright, critic, and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, but he wrote those books—his only novels—to expand the storyline of his own 1953 film Manon Of The Spring. Berri and co-writer Gérard Brach strove to preserve the detail and tone of Pagnol's books, but they succeeded so well in bringing the story to vivid, immersive life that their version is far better known than the original film.
Florette stars Yves Montand as a wily old French farmer, the penultimate scion of a family that he's proudly inflated into a glorious dynasty. More than anything, he wants to restore the family name to its pre-war glory, which helps explain why he's so indulgent yet so controlling with his one remaining relative, awkward, easily led Daniel Auteuil. When Auteuil returns to town, eager to launch a carnation-growing business on the family land, Montand decides his fragile flowers need a better water source, and he attempts to buy some nearby land containing a spring. But when hunchbacked city-dweller Gérard Depardieu inherits the land, Montand suggests blocking the spring so the newcomer's crops will die and he'll sell cheap and leave the countryside.
Manon takes up the story much later, when the hunchback's young daughter is a grown woman (Emmanuelle Béart), embittered by what she's learned about Montand and Auteuil, but not realizing the full extent of their treachery. When Auteuil sees her bathing naked and helplessly falls for her—positioning her as Montand's one chance to extend his beloved bloodline—the conspirators suddenly need their victim's goodwill, and the stage is set for a tragedy of Greek proportions, with a heavy dose of poetic justice.
Berri takes his time with all this, giving Depardieu his days of plenty before the inevitable drought hits, drinking in the way Montand and Auteuil interact, observing their pleasure with the land and their own cleverness, watching as the other farmers around them guess what they're up to and decide not to intervene on behalf of a cripple and an outsider. But in Pagnol's carefully crafted world, every little cruelty reaps its own fair reward.
For a four-hour film cycle, the Florette/Manon duology is surprisingly tight and limber, with just a touch of wry humor to leaven the tragedy. The pacing is expansive rather than draggy; Berri is in no rush to tear through his story, but the dialogue is generally meaningful and story-critical, and very little goes on that isn't directly relevant to the story's ultimate ends. And the deliberate pacing ensures that there are few sudden shocks; the audience is permitted to see nearly every squirm-inducing twist coming, and encouraged to anticipate yet dread the payoff. The films are essentially a single piece: Minor events in the first don't pay off until the second, while the second lacks context and characterization without the first. They're meant to be watched as a single excellent movie, a bitter, intelligent generational portrait suggesting that while evil acts aren't always immediately punished, delayed reckonings can be far worse.
Key features: None.