Jean de Florette (1986)
Director: Claude Berri
Cast: Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil
Runtime: 116 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette is a film that even in moments of darkness retains a comic and affable feel of comforting humour. The greedy Cesar (Yves Montand) would in a lesser film come across as evil and conniving, but his villainy seems strangely comical and we accept the reasoning behind his methods because we know he does not want to hurt anyone. The titular Jean (Gerard Depardieu) is a strange but lovable man. While we pain to see him suffer, his brave optimism instills his own faith in the audience that no matter how wrong things go – and they seem destined to go disastrously awry – at the end of the day there is little point crying and moaning. He suffers, but does not assume his suffering is transcendent. Perhaps he knows how badly things will end, but he seems determined to continue with his life anyway, if for no other reason than for his family.
Jean de Florette tells the story of of the farmer Cesar and his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil), who live on a farm but secretly covet the property adjacent to them, into which a wonderful spring is flowing and for which life is vibrant. When the property seems destined to be possessed by the strange but delightful Jean de Florette, Cesar and Ugolin block the spring, preventing water from accessing the property and resulting in disaster for Jean in the summer time, as his crops and animals suffer the wrath of thirst and dry heat. Though Jean is probably the most sympathetic character in the movie, we find ourselves rooting for Cesar and Ugolin, despite the cruel villainy behind their plan, and when it ends in disaster and death we find ourselves shaking our heads at the men we once rooted for, and thus shaking heads at ourselves for not realizing the foolishness of their malice and avarice.
Cesar and Ugolin’s painful plan is not as difficult to think about as it is to view. In the winter months we see Jean making a wondrous profit, pleased with the farm he now owns and the success it is turning. Without warning he is thrust into winter and all changes. We see him dragging his mule miles for water and the pain of knowing it’s right beneath him all along tugs at us insistently. The plot was more Cesar’s than Ugolin’s, and as Ugolin attempts to befriend Jean to earn his trust we can see how torn he is between his value and respect for his uncle and his powerful attraction to the wonders of the struggling but humorous Jean. Before this film, Daniel Auteuil was a comedian and this movie, his sudden turn to the realm of drama, was unexpected but pleasantly career-boosting. Auteuil gives arguably my favourite performance in the film; he is a joy simply to look at, and a superb actor as well. He seems never to miss a beat, his role as the foolhardy entourage seeming to go to new places beyond the stereotype.
Jean de Florette is not the whole story; it is continued in the companion film Manon des Sources, which from what I hear is just as good if not better than its predecessor. I can’t wait to watch it and will probably be reviewing it here too. I’m interested to see how director Berri continues the story; he purposefully leaves Jean de Florette’s ending open for interpretation, and yet it feels like such a complete work, a tale in a storybook with loose ends to be filled by the reader’s imagination. I can only imagine what will happen in the second film, and if it carries the same humour, ingenuity, originality and refreshing wit as this movie, I’m sure it will be wonderful. For this moment however we have Jean de Florette, a superb French comedy with elements of drama that succeeds in being powerful, moving, watchable and exciting. Damn if it doesn’t feel like a classic already.