It’s a safe bet that the first time many people encountered the great French actor Daniel Auteuil was in Claude Berri’s 1986 film Jean de Florette. Adapted from a novel by author/filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, the film (and its sequel, Manon des Sources) traced a sun-baked arc of greed, avarice, and filial deception in France’s Provence region. The two films were hugely successful in their country of origin, and Auteuil’s role as the odious, scheming Ugolin allowed the actor to break free from being typecast as a suave, sophisticated urbanite. The film played no small part in sparking a mini-revival of French cinema, and helped Auteuil along his path to a highly distinguished film career.
With The Well-Digger’s Daughter, Auteuil has returned to the wellspring of his previous success, this time to try his hand at directing as well as acting. The film is a remake of a 1940 picture written and directed by the aforementioned Pagnol, and many of the expected hallmarks are present. We’re back in Provence, with its surfeit of gorgeous scenery and attendant sun-dappled camerawork aptly setting the scene for the film’s wrenching tale of young love, wartime tragedy, and familial and social conflict. This would seem to be a can’t-miss formula for Auteuil: what moviegoer wouldn’t want to take a trip back through this very scenic memory lane, especially with a distinguished actor in the starring role and a legendary figure providing plot and dialogue?
Auteuil stars as Pascale, the titular well-digger: a husky working man, widower, and father of six daughters. The eldest, Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), has become den mother to her five sisters in her mother’s absence. Pascale relies on her, and hopes to marry her off to his fellow laborer Felipe (Kad Merad) so that she will not end up far from the homestead. Before that plan can be fully hatched, however, Patricia develops an infatuation with with Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a dashing young pilot who is the son of one of the richest merchants in town. Patricia gets pregnant, Jacques goes off to World War I, and things get complicated.
It is at this point that Auteuil gets his opportunity to shine as an actor, as the shame of the out-of-wedlock pregnancy and subsequent reaction by Jacques’s family send Pascale into a tailspin of confused moral outrage. He takes bold actions, then takes them back, then bloviates about honor and devotion. It’s confusing enough on paper, and forgivable that Auteuil does not seem able to come to grips with his character on screen. The actor flits from one emotional extreme to the next, but his performance does not have a guiding principle at its core and so ends up seeming flimsy. Auteuil exacerbates matters by making the ill-advised decision to cover up his shortcomings by hamming it up so completely that the estimable, understated performances turned in by the rest of the film’s cast are sadly drowned out.
As a director, Auteuil seems to have just as much trouble finding the right tenor. He mostly plays it safe, shelving any bold choices he may have had planned in favor of a reliance on staid storytelling and the aforementioned golden-hued camerawork. Tonally, the film vacillates between deep pathos and light comedy, but Auteuil does not seem willing or able to let one mood inform or enrich the other. The sadness and the laughter seem similarly perfunctory, and moments that should be moving feel dashed-off, or worse, falsely wrought.
It’s not all a slog, though. The movie is to some extent redeemed through the performances of its supporting cast. Merad in particular turns in a gentle, keenly felt performance as the magnanimous Felipe, and Duvauchelle hits all the subtlest accents of what could have easily become a run-of-the-mill Lothario character. But they are not enough to support the weight of an entire film, and Bergès-Frisbey’s presence as a female lead is far too vaporous to bear up against Auteuil’s flagellations.
In the end, it is unfair to say that the movie’s failings derive solely from Auteuil’s poor choices behind and in front of the lens. Marcel Pagnol must bear some of the blame as well. His plot is often half-baked and implausible, even with the necessary suspension of disbelief taken into consideration. Where Jean and Manon were taut and convincing, The Well-Digger’s Daughter is wan and unsatisfying, with silly plot twists and an ending that essentially nullifies all the sturm und drang that led up to it. Auteuil can’t be blamed for wanting to play it safe for his directorial debut, and it makes sense that he would want to return to a trusted bard. But there is no accounting for why he chose this tale.