Though highly esteemed by Jean Renoir and Orson Welles, Marcel Pagnol has long been a hard sell for cinephiles. The Provençal polymath began his career as a playwright before successfully pitching his script for Marius, the first of the Fanny trilogy, as a film to Alexander Korda in 1931. In short order Pagnol established himself as a central figure in the French film industry of the ’30s. His ubiquity was rewarded in 1946, when he became the first filmmaker to be elected to the Académie Française. A decade later he tried his hand at novels and triumphed yet again. As that thumbnail of a career suggests, he approached film as a vehicle for stories, and this is where his reputation among cinephiles sags, for in spite of casting actors and spaces which are very often interesting to look at, the flat visual style of the films exists basically to make room for yards of script. Watching his films now, it’s difficult not to think of them as being emblematic of the tendencies derided by the young turks of the New Wave a couple of decades later.
For all that, if you put up with the often hackneyed sentimentality guiding the dramas, you discover a poignant fondness for people that animate the scenes. If you can look beyond the tired deployment of melodramatic complications, there’s a relaxed quality that betrays a delightful comic interest in the sidelines of the drama. Get past the lack of camera technique, and you’ll find tons of action at the level of speech. Hardly a formal innovator, Pagnol nonetheless grasped the fresh possibilities afforded by the then new sound technology. The provincial foibles underlying his stories required a sense of particularity only achievable with sound—the right accents, the right overabundant key of emotions, the right foghorns and fishmonger calls. The soundtrack is often as dynamic as the image is static. In both, however, he cedes a tremendous degree of control to his actors (not for nothing are many of films named for a character), and one suspects this has much to do with Welles and Renoir’s admiration.
If Bay Area audiences are clued in to Pagnol’s oeuvre to a greater degree than usual, that surely owes to chef Alice Waters, who named her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse after an endearing character in the Fanny trilogy. The homage did not end there: Witness the vintage posters in the restaurant, footage on the website, and a café and daughter named Fanny. In commemoration of Chez Panisse’s fortieth anniversary, the Pacific Film Archive is screening a wide selection of Pagnol’s work this month.
It’s easy to see why Pagnol’s unhurried pacing and local flavors would appeal to the Slow Food set, and there are many moments in the films that foodies will savor. Cigalon (1935) begins with a tightly framed composition of a steaming cauldron suspended over a wood fire. After a moment, the titular chef stoops into view to inhale his creation with huge relish. Or there is the way that, in Marius, goodly Cesar sucks olives, hucking their pits to the floor of his bar as he chews out his son Marius for toying with Fanny’s emotions. Or when in Fanny (1932) a titanic argument between Cesar and Panisse is abruptly called off due to an overflowing bottle of champagne which requires glugging.
The chef Cigalon’s mix of gusto and pride is typical in the Pagnol universe. Though he runs a lovely country restaurant, he cannot bear to waste his exquisite cuisine on less refined palettes, and so the customers never eat. He’s a snob, but one easily forgiven for the joy he takes in even just describing his recipes (or insulting those of other chefs). The slim comic premise arrives when his laundress announces that she’s going to open her own simple restaurant to serve the customers he turns away. It’s a sitcom situation ballooned out to 72 minutes, though there’s fun enough in the bickering and pearls of dialogue that will make any chef smile (“Nothing replaces butter”).
Better, though more hamstrung by sentimentalism, is Merlusse (1935), the simple fable of a fearsome, one-eyed schoolteacher (the kids call him Merlusse because they say he stinks of cod, a Provençal jibe if ever there was one) given the unenviable task of watching after the boys stuck at school for the Christmas holiday. The holiday heartwarming that follows is a tepid dish. What’s good about the film are the appetizers: quickly drawn sketches of the boys in the play-yard and dormitory. The students range in age and rebelliousness; in a short feature, we come away with a dozen or so sharpened characterizations, a few of which look ahead to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) as well as to Pagnol’s own autobiographical novels. We watch as the kids torture their teacher (with an “arse-pin”), each other (throwing dirt into an occupied toilet stall) and make cool (cigarette smoke curling from behind a pillar, love letters kept handy in the breast pocket). Such sharply etched fragments are redolent of memory and stand happily opposed to the fuzzy moral at film’s end.
The expansive Fanny trilogy provided Pagnol greater latitude in enriching his characters and spaces. He himself only directed the third (and arguably best) of the films, César (1936), though aside from a few flashy tracking shots in Fanny, directed by Marc Allégret, the house style of the films is consistent. Pagnol is unquestionably the auteur of the trilogy, though in such a way as to run against the director-oriented dogmas of auteurism (this too may account for some of his disfavor). If the films feel long at two hours a piece, that has much to do with Pagnol’s relative inflexibility about the wholeness of his scenes; his scripts hardly ever call the most basic kind of parallel editing that make movie narratives go. Pagnol bets everything on our becoming immersed in the personalities involved, privileging the naturalistic drama of conversation and comic digressions that are as much about the characters amusing themselves as our being amused. Although the melodramatic situations are often trite, the character’s reactions almost never are.
The series unfolds along the Marseille docks, most prominently in César’s bar. The sea is mostly offscreen, but it’s exerts a palpable presence in the foghorns and, more significantly, the lure it holds over Marius, César’s dashing son and would-be suitor of Fanny. His wanderlust is what destabilizes the smooth passage of generations and sets loose the trilogy’s comedy of errors. In Marius, Fanny and Marius’s tortuous coupling is finally consummated only to be cut short when she decides he will never be happy on land. In a preposterously melodramatic act of self-sacrifice, she pretends to be cruel to him so that he’ll leave without remorse. As it transpires in Fanny, however, she’s carrying his child. Here Panisse steps into the breach—gladly, as the only thing he wants more than Fanny is a son. There is a 20-year ellipses between the second film and César, during which time the improvised family structure has become reality. And yet as Panisse lies dying and Marius works in a garage not far off, the bonds of love and blood threaten to throw everything into chaos again.
At his best, Pagnol uses this plot built upon misunderstanding and rapprochement to make gentle sport of the provincial obsessions with pride and honor. The handling of stereotypes is especially delicate in the films; they seem less intrinsic traits than performances used to negotiate situations. Unfortunately, all the melodramatic reversals also allow Pagnol to indulge his weakness for the most obvious forms of dramatic irony, as in the long scene in which César talks about how much he loves his son when we know the boy has already set sail. In moments like these, Pagnol does everything but weep for us.
Pagnol’s consistent use of location shooting and working-class characters have led some to say his film anticipate neorealism, though such claims are in the end overstated. We rarely actually see the characters at work, and the sense of place still functions as a “setting” rather than a set of conditions. The world of Pagnol’s films can be hard, but it’s basically good; his view does not admit irresolvable conflict, and as such it’s impossible to imagine him directing something along the lines of Anna Magnani’s death scene in Roberto Rosselini’s Rome, Open City (1945). The realism that counts for Pagnol is that of his character’s faces, and that’s a fine thing in itself. He reveals his accord with their world most winningly in those scenes in which he suspends the plot, as the characters suspend their days, to linger over a game of hearts. It’s a table many of us would be happy to share for an evening, and one Ms. Waters has faithfully recreated in her years as a restaurateur.
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