By cutting through the fields to take her father lunch, Patricia Amoretti (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) encounters Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). She is 18-years-old, he is 26. She is pretty, with the fine manners of a young lady; he is fighter pilot and handsome. A little bit of moonlight will do the rest during their second meeting. There will not be a third as Jacques is sent to the front. The second encounter leads to Patricia's pregnancy. Jacques's rich parents claim its blackmail and Patricia and her well-digger father (Daniel Auteuil) are the only ones to have the joy of welcoming the child into this world. A joy that the Mazels soon envy them and try to share, for Jacques is declared missing.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: Marking his debut as a director, veteran actor Daniel Auteuil made a bold and risky choice. Bold because The Well-Digger’s Daughter is a remake of Marcel Pagnol’s 1940 classic La fille du puisatier. Risky on two counts: Firstly, Auteuil’s adaptation inevitably would be compared with the original. Secondly, the director took on a considerable challenge in endeavouring to make a melodramatic saga set during the lead-up to World War II relevant and meaningful to today’s audiences.
On the first point, several reviewers declared the remake faithfully recreates numerous scenes from the original, unseen by this critic, while adding a glossy, sun-drenched look in place of Pagnol’s incisive realism.
On the second, the film is only intermittently effective in conveying the emotional ups and downs in the relationship between the well-digger and his naive 18-year-old daughter, and in depicting the class divisions in provincial France.
It’s an old-fashioned tale of filial love, rejection and forgiveness, gussied up with a modern veneer thanks to Jean-François Robins’ lush cinematography and a slick score by Alexandre Desplat.
Auteuil plays the hard-working Pascal Amoretti, a widower who struggles to support his six daughters. Franco-Spanish actress Astrid Bergès-Frisbey is his 18-year-old daughter Patricia, clearly the apple of his eye, as he tells his loyal underling Félipe (Kad Marad) that he loves her just as much as he’d have loved a son. He’d sent Patricia to an orphanage in Paris when she was six but asked her to return home to Provence when she was 15.
Lonely bachelor Félipe wants to propose marriage to the luminous Patricia but she has the hots for Jacques Mazel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a handsome young fighter pilot and the son of a rich store owner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his uppity wife (Sabine Azéma).
During an uncomfortable date with the middle-aged Félipe, Patricia makes an excuse and dashes off to see Jacques, leading to a passionate tryst which Auteuil curiously chooses not to show on screen. The next day Jacques is posted to Africa and cowardly asks his mother to deliver a letter to the teenager but his ma wimps out and burns the missive. Soon afterwards Jacques’ parents are informed their son’s plane was shot down and he’s presumed dead.
Patricia duly confesses to her father that she gave herself to Jacques and she’s pregnant, triggering one of the most poignant scenes as Pascal accuses her of 'sinning" and laments, 'I thought you were an angel."
Here Auteuil delivers his finest moments as his character shows a dark, angry and vindictive side as he casts out his favourite daughter on the spurious grounds that he must sacrifice her and her child to protect the other girls. Thereafter, the narrative takes several twists before a happy if contrived, and not entirely plausible, ending.
In the role originated by the great Raimu, Auteuil infuses Pascal with a quiet dignity and pride. While his behaviour at times is harsh and unreasonable, there’s no doubt he puts a high value on the honour of himself and his family.
The radiant Bergès-Frisbey runs the gamut of emotions from dewy-eyed love to shame, regret and anguish, while Duvauchelle gives a bland reading as her impassive lover.
Merad is a treat as the well-meaning, self-effacing Félipe, the source of the film’s most humorous passages.
Pagnol had been a lucky charm for Auteuil as he starred as the shifty landowner Ugolin in Claude Berri’s adaptation of Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon des sources.
The Well-Digger’s Daughter is a modest, sweet-natured work that falls somewhat short of those richly entertaining bucolic tales.