Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri, 1986)

A surprisingly deep and poignant, and even more surprisingly brisk-feeling, 2-film, 4-hour epic about…carnation-farming and water displacement. Two farmers, Cesar (Yves Montand) and his ne’er-do-well nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) (names borrowed for similar characters in the Simpsons episode “The Crepes of Wrath”), fresh off of Ugolin’s idea to grow and sell carnations and in need of fertile land to do so, conspire to block off the water supply to the neighboring land belonging to a newcomer, the hunchback Jean (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to drive away the formerly city-dwelling tax collector in despair and acquire the land on the cheap. What follows in the first film is Jean’s charmingly stubborn and hopelessly oblivious attempt to grow crops and breed rabbits relying on water from miles away while the two conspirators next door play friendly, while in the second film, Jean’s now-grown daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her unknowingly victimized father. As the plot progresses and soon other people in the town become aware of it but do nothing to tip off Jean, it’s clear the main motive for the plot, especially for the townspeople but even for Cesar and Ugolin, in addition to their precious carnations, is an inherent disdain towards the outsider, any stranger who would dare invade their carefully-insulated world (although for the older Cesar, the motive is revealed late to be decades in the making and personal). This alienation of the outsider and a critique of isolationism seem to be one of the film’s main focuses. True, it may be a bit too on-the-nose to make the outsider in question a hunchback, so physically separate from everyone else that his status as an “other” couldn’t be more symbolically obvious, and indeed their constantly referring to him as “the hunchback” gets old after a while, but this isn’t exactly the pinnacle of realism, as both films are peppered with moments of melodrama and humor that humanizes both victim and victimizer. As hopeless as his plight is and as obstinate as he may be, you can’t help but admire Jean’s persistence, often carrying gallons of water miles on his (hunch)back to keep his fledgling farm going (an image that reminded me of, of all things, Setsuko Hara in Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth”). His persistence and innocent optimism serves as a refreshing contrast to the slimy corruption of his two scheming neighbors. Which isn’t to say, though, that he’s a flawless hero, as his steadfastness is basically, in the end, not worth it, and indeed rather stupid, to the point where that persistence even makes you roll your eyes…as surely it must make Cesar and Ugolin’s. Many scenes focus on Jean and his supportive wife and daughter, true, but the film does a brave thing by putting as much, if not more, of the point of view on Cesar and Ugolin, the supposed villains. As Cesar is seemingly obsessed with continuing the lineage and wealth of his precious Soubeyran name and Ugolin feigns helpful friendship with Jean, even their vile scheme to drive out / ruin an honest man becomes shaded with humanity, with Ugolin arguably developing a genuine affection for the man while ruining him and the viewer is challenged to split his or her allegiance between two shameless crooks and a well-meaning but ignorant newcomer – not exactly easy, storybook choices.

The wildcard amongst this cast of characters is Jean’s daughter, Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna in the first film, Béart in the second). To call her precocious would probably be an understatement, as she silently observes her father’s mostly fruitless toiling with sad curiosity, and the suspiciously doting Ugolin with clear distrust and disdain. Her quiet observations and expressive eyes say more about her than much of the film’s actual dialogue says about its other characters. It’s as if she’s not only wise beyond her years, but downright prescient, plotting justice for her wronged father before the extent of his being wronged even becomes clear. In the second film, that penchant for quiet hyper-observation and even quieter plotting remains in the now-teenage Manon, with an added degree of willful isolation. She almost seems autistic in her persistent lack of communication with anyone, her obsessive tending of her goats, and her joyfully dancing naked out in broad daylight. She’s incredibly enigmatic, perhaps too much so, but that enigma provides one of the more fascinating aspects of the second film, as Ugolin falls hopelessly in love with her. True, any heterosexual male with eyes could easily fall in love with a young woman as beautiful as Emmanuele Béart, but you get the sense that Ugolin’s obsessive, tragic infatuation arises chiefly from his guilt over what he did to the girl’s father years before. You can’t help but pity the poor man as he falls all over himself trying to woo the silent woman who is planning his destruction, precisely because we’ve spent a full film and a half seeing things through his seedy, tragically flawed perspective, unlike with the town’s young, handsome (and bland) schoolteacher in his own wooing of Manon, in one major subplot that falls majorly flat.

While Ugolin is clearly a tragic figure, he’s cartoonish and buffoonish in bringing about his own downfall. His uncle, Cesar, experiences a much more subtle downfall that will stick with me for some time. Not once does he interact with Jean the hunchback, in trying to wash his hands of guilt. His goal, of continuing the Soubeyran line and supposed fortune, is admirable, and indeed his attempts to coax his pitiful nephew and heir into child-bearing marriage is even endearing, as his curmudgeonly interactions with the stunningly immature Ugolin are among the more charming and likable scenes across both films. It’s just his way of going about it that is reprehensible, and ultimately unforgivable. That this story is wrapped up neater than a soap opera, complete with a last moment plot twist, cannot be ignored and is quite disappointing for a 4-hour epic that otherwise unfolds at an otherwise wonderfully leisurly pace, the excellent cinematography of the farmlands and sounds of cicadas and footsteps on arid dirt putting you right in the midst of an agriculturally devastating heat wave. But if that conclusion is abrupt and unsubtle, the wordless facial acting of the great Yves Montand in the town cemetery is anything but. In the end, Cesar gets exactly what he wants. And it destroys him.

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