Yves Montand et Daniel Auteil in jean de Florette/ manon des Sources ALTHOUGH Marcel Pagnol wrote L’Eau des Collines in Paris in the 1950s, it was set in the south, in rural Provence at the turn of the twentieth century, but it is a timeless tale.

Published in 1962, the two books of L’Eau des Collines Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources — were later adapted by Claude Berri into two of the greatest films ever made.

It was in the mid 1980s when I hired Jean de Florette on VHS videocassette tape format from the local video hire shop. It was so captivating that I returned the tape the following day and picked up Manon des Source to complete the tale.

It is, for me, terribly French — and I mean that in the best way possible.  It reminded me very much of the epic qualities of Hugo’s Les Miserables. That’s what I mean by terribly French in the Best Way.

The story is epic (don’t worry; there’re no spoilers here), and will play on your mind for years to come.  The French twists and turns, the emotional connections and passions.  This is raw humanity, this is beauty and flaws.  Great stuff.

But Berri takes the history of these people, and makes cinematic magic.  The story is baked like a clay pot in the southern French sun, slowly and in great heat. It is paced perfectly – a skill in itself.

Apparently both films were made as one project and chopped up into two and released as two films at different times. This makes it difficult to talk of just one or the other; they are one epic tale really – L’Eau des Collines.

The film(s) have remarkable sound, gorgeous sets and settings, fabulous light and colours, and the editing and directing are masterly. This is high art; somehow it has all come together. This is cinematic opera.

Emmanuele Beart in Manon des SourcesLook at the cast — utterly fabulous! Jean de Florette is played by Gérard Depardieu – and this has to be one of his finest works.  His wife at that time, Elisabeth, played his wife in the film, hence the screen magic. In the sequel, Manon is played by the captivating Emmanuelle Béart.

But the two real core characters throughout are, of course, the terrible two locals, Ugolin and Papet. Daniel Auteuil as just outstanding as the malleable simpleton, Ugolin, and Yves Montand plays the old scoundrel, Cesar Soubeyran (or Papet) so well it actually broke my heart. Yes, Montand made a grown man cry: me. What a performance! His last film too before he died. Poignant.

Jean-Claude Petit did the music, so it was always going to be good, but imagine my surprise to hear Verdi’s The Force of Destiny (La forza del destino) overture… but wait – it’s played on the harmonica by Toots Thielemans! This is utter genius; it links the tales to opera tales, it links the force of destiny theme with the tale of misfortune and fortune of the characters in the film, it is almost accordion – so it Frenchyfes the music, and it so perfectly fits with the mood and feel of the film.  Sadly, due to TV ads, everyone thinks verdi-petit-Thielmas’s tune is The Stella Artois tune!

But think of The Godfather – the way the music themes weave into the film operatically, to flavour and season the scenes in a cultural way. Cinematically, the Godfather is a very similar project; some values, same base human flaws and empathies drawn from the viewer.

jean de floretteSome say Jean de Florette was a brighter, optimistic film because of the Depardieus, mainly the hunchback, Jean – and the fun provided by Papet and Ugolin — and that Manon des Source is darker,  being about female revenge.  I don’t agree.

For me both films have light and charm contrasting with dark and grim – in Jean, think of the struggle for water, and the death scene as dark, while for light in Manon, think of the villagers waiting for water, the coy Manon flirting with the schoolmaster Bernard.

The death scene in Manon is one of the most personally significant scenes in cinema; I find it almost painful to watch.

For me, it is impossible to watch them separately, you HAVE to watch both for it all to work properly.  This is a real masterpiece.  Yes, it is in French — but they do not talk much, and when they do it is slow.  The acting is all the richer for that, and just like all the very best films, it is all about telling the story. This is a great story, a deep plot with twists.  And true to Pagnol, the tale is not merely told by actors, but by music, editing, directing, pacing, lighting, and even the weather and countryside.


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