Rediscover: Marseille Trilogy

Rediscover: Marseille Trilogy

Pagnol’s humanistic spirit runs through the three films.

Although Marcel Pagnol doesn’t hold a place in the same pantheon as early film greats Vigo, Chaplin, Renoir or Keaton, the French writer and filmmaker helped pioneer cinema’s transition from silent to sound. Though better known for his plays and novels, Pagnol’s effect on cinema was a profound one, making him the first filmmaker elected to the Académie française. To an American audience, Pagnol is probably best known for writing the source material for Claude Berri’s beloved mid-‘80s dramas Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. While those films, starring Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, will likely provide a more satisfying experience for a modern audience, Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy (Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936)) had a more profound impact on cinematic history and evolution.

Born in 1895, Pagnol spent his formative years in Marseille before moving to Paris. The son of a schoolteacher and a seamstress, Pagnol and his family spent their summers at a rented cottage in La Treille, a small Provençal village nearby. These trips proved to be an influential experience for the young Pagnol, as Provence became a fecund milieu for his work. Pagnol’s stories invoke the soon-to-change way of life of the denizens of Marseille and its surrounding villages.

Though the story of the Marseille Trilogy is anything but complicated, Pagnol stretches his tale over more than six hours, allowing his characters and setting to slowly develop, endearing us to their hardscrabble and, well, provincial existence. These films move with the languid pace of their setting, as a group of old men gossip, lie, kvetch and fight. These are men who have never left their city, let alone France. Heading up the group is local publican César (Raimu), a combustible lout who works to keep his son, Marius (Pierre Fresnay), in line. Marius, who sweeps out the bar, has bigger dreams. He wants to leave Marseille and soon finds a position on a merchant ship en route to Australia.

Complicating Marius’ escape is his affinity for Fanny (Orane Demazis), a young girl who sells shellfish near the port. Friends since childhood, Marius and Fanny have fallen in love. Meanwhile, sailmaker Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a rich widower 30 years Fanny’s senior, is also interested. After Marius leaves for Australia, Fanny discovers she is pregnant. Horrified and with her lover gone for up to two years, Fanny agrees to marry Panisse, but not before confessing her condition to the widower. Sensitive that the girl’s honor is on the line, Panisse offers to raise her child as his own.

Pagnol, who directed the only third part of the trilogy, allows his story to meander over 20 years as the consequences of the characters’ decisions reach a head at its end. Marius and Fanny were initially written as plays, and sometimes the long stretches of dialogue and the stagey feeling shows how writing for the theater differs from writing for the screen. However, the characters endear themselves as the films advance, and we soon understand the connection between them that can only exist in a small town where people have spent their entire lives.

The estimation of Pagnol’s trilogy has vacillated over the years. Detractors believed the films felt too staged and staid, even if frank issues such as pre-marital sex, children born out of wedlock and drug smuggling make an appearance. However, legendary critic André Bazin considered Pagnol the natural starting place for the work of other, better-regarded directors such as Orson Welles and Roberto Rossellini. Both the neo-realists and auteurs of the French New Wave owe Pagnol, and his gritty realism, a debt.

What keeps the Marseille Trilogy so important today is Pagnol’s humanistic spirit that runs through the three films. Despite their faults, all of his characters are innately good people, ones with whose emotional lives we become intimately acquainted. A fond nostalgia may color Pagnol’s films, but he also does not forgo the heartbreak and sadness that comes with being human. As filmmakers struggled to make sense out of how to use sound in their movies, Pagnol demonstrated just what these advances of technology could do in the medium, creating a story and characters that still resonate nearly 90 years later.

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