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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Older Times and Now

The Well Digger’s Daughter

Farewell, My Queen


THAT ENDEARING AND ENDURING French actor Daniel Auteuil, who was born in 1950, whose first film was in 1974, and who has since then made several dozen, has had an unusual idea. He has chosen to re-make a film that was famous before he was born and to make his directing debut with it. Also, we might say, his second acting debut. Through the decades, Auteuil has given us plenty of variously sophisticated men: here he is an earthy Provençal manual laborer.

He plays the father in The Well Digger’s Daughter, a picture that was also in its first iteration, back in the 1930s, part of a career change. The author was Marcel Pagnol, who was causing a stir with this change. A successful playwright, he had previously scorned films as a mere device for spreading theater works, yet had now switched his very active career directly to films. Continuing to work in Provence, his beloved southern France, in 1938 he made The Baker’s Wife, a considerable international success, and followed it with another story of a Provençal worker’s family.

Also, it provided a leading role for Raimu, a (one-name) character star in a time of character stars. All we need say about Raimu is that Orson Welles called him “the greatest actor in the world,” which nobody ever has been but about whom one can understand this explosion of praise.

Auteuil is a different matter. Unlike Raimu, who was hardly known in this country until his middle-age roles, Auteuil has figuratively grown into this role as some of us pleasurably watched him age. Daringly, too, he doesn’t have much to do in the first half of the picture, but when his role grows, he takes over.

Here he is as Pascal Amoretti, the widowed father of six girls. His oldest daughter, Patricia, has spent some time in Paris and, now returned, is attracted by her town’s wealthy young man, Jacques. Eventually they coalesce. He is drafted—it is 1939—as she finds herself pregnant. Jacques is reported killed, and a partner of Pascal’s is willing to marry Patricia. She declines, which is when Pascal forcefully enters the story. Quite conventionally he censures his daughter, but time passes and a finish arrives.

In its period the story snuggles. If it were brought up to the present, it would seem dated. Its pleasures today are nearly paradoxical—a new film that is like a revival of an old one. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as Patricia and Jean-Pierre Darroussin are almost enchanting, but it is Auteuil, entering a new career as mature actor-director, whom we want to cheer.

FRANCE AGAIN, even farther in the past. Historical importance aside, it is clear that to France its revolution is as important as our Civil War is to us, as an endless source of fiction, plays, and films. Marie Antoinette would never have believed the length of her reign—through proxies. She is with us again in a somewhat secondary role in Farewell, My Queen, which is more concerned with her court as a whole, though with her, too, of course. The central character, though barely so, is one of her attendants, Sidonie, whose chief occupation is reader to the queen.

It is mid-July of 1789, at Versailles, and the tumbrels are beginning to roll in the distance. This fact does not yet disturb the court greatly. In this screenplay, derived from a novel by Chantal Thomas, the courtiers seem to believe for a time that they will be protected by continuing their love affairs and genuflections and pointless confidences.

The details of the plot are unimportant: that is the main point made by the skillful director, Benoît Jacquot. It is the slowness with which they realize what is happening that fascinates. King Louis himself has a swirl of bravery in his being; otherwise the aristocracy and those around it continue astonishingly to gossip and whisper. The film ends before their finish—that is, history’s finish.

As in so many period films, the costumes—here by Christian Gasc and Valérie Ranchoux—do much of the work. They are as gorgeous as is usual in pictures of this period. (Off-screen always is the army of tailors and dressmakers and designers and seamstresses and maids and valets implied by these garments.) The costumes are helped here by the lighting of Romain Winding, who uses a good deal of shadow to mold figures instead of easy brilliance. In the quasi-leading role Léa Seydoux is as honest as possible. Diane Kruger, as this year’s Marie Antoinette, is so beautiful that we are glad that the film spares us her execution. Director Jacquot has juggled all his elements with ease.

GYPSY, a title that has often been used figuratively, is used quite literally for this Czech-Slovak film. It really deals with the Roma, the gypsies of Slovakia. Yet though most of the cast are gypsies, some of the people who worked on the picture are Czech. The screenplay by Marek Lescák and the director Martin Sulík ventures even further in cultural origin. Their picture is based—roughly but patently—on Hamlet. The result is curiously engaging.

The setting is the first point of interest. This present-day gypsy village clings to a steep hillside with steep rough paths and homes that are permanent shacks with pieces of galvanized tin as roofing. The interiors look more comfortable than we would expect. Adam, a somewhat dreamy fourteen-year-old who lives in that village, comes home one day to find that his father has been killed. His father’s brother, who invents a barely tenable explanation of it, soon marries Adam’s mother. She explains privately to him that she is doing it to protect him and her other children. That uncle is the character who is closest to his Shakespearean original—overbearing, gluttonous, smiling, and shrewd. Soon Adam is visited—not in dream or vision—by his dead father. The man himself comes to advise and strengthen his son, not with King Hamlet’s hunger for revenge but to alert his son to the dangerous uncle.

As in the original play but for quite different reasons than Prince Hamlet’s, Adam is slow to act. He is otherwise absorbed, by Julka, a forward and seductive girl about his age. Between his involvement with her and his various entanglements with the so-called “whites”—the non-gypsies who dominate the country— he is busy growing up. Ultimately his father reappears, not pointedly “to whet [his] almost blunted purpose,” yet all ends as we would prefer.

The general texture of the film is constantly engaging—the way that these people, long accustomed to abuse and disadvantage, have made for themselves an accommodating and comfortable culture. (When an ostrich farmer—of all things—cheats them, they simply steal two of his ostriches, unembarrassed by the grotesqueness of the birds.) The different realm of the gypsies is so clearly established that when the dead father reappears, simply strolling in without special effects, we are not surprised. It could happen in this world.

The relationship of the gypsy village to the long-gone Jewish shtetl of Europe is inescapable, though only to the degree that one culture is living within another. Sulík doesn’t make this point: it is obvious. He does supply this gypsy culture as needed: people crowded around a small table for dinner as if it were always that way, or neighbors skinning a goat on their porch as we pass. Sulík is acutely aware of people’s faces and often comes quite close to them so that we may share their attractions. Jan Mizigar as Adam quite convinces us that he is distilling secrets and questions within him. Martinka Kotlarova’s Julka breathes desire and intent to satisfy that desire before she is turned off to an arranged marriage with a “white.”  

This article appeared in the August 2, 2012 issue of the magazine.