Sarah Griffin takes in Daniel Auteuil’s refilming of the first two-thirds of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy.
American movies try again and again to capture what is often referred to as the golden era of cinema – that elusive ‘old-Hollywood’ feeling. When any older time is brought onscreen, they tend to throw the kitchen sink at it – 1920s filled with flappers and laissez faire attitudes; 1950s packed with conservatism and family values, etc. When Hollywood travels through time, it does it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. French film, on the other hand, slips easily between the strings of time – the main tenets of filmmaking tend to remain the same no matter what the era: subtle fashions, deep characterisation, and above all else, stunningly realised mise en scène.
Daniel Auteuil, a powerhouse of French cinema, brings Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy to the screen again, with a hand in every movement – directing, adapting the play and acting as a main character. His intimacy with Pagnol has been most notable through his heartbreaking (and award-winning) portrayal of Ugolin Soubeyran in Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1986), and so Auteuil here brings new life to Fanny and Marius with the affection of an old friend. Creating a window into the past, it is a Marseille full of life and vigour, a busy port anchoring everyone’s lives, which nonetheless maintains the feel of a small village. Pagnol’s characterisations are perfectly realised…the friendships, the romances, the comedy that evolves without artifice, everything is so beautifully rounded that each new face has a place in your heart.
Beginning with Marius’ tale, we join the young bartender as he comically interacts with his exasperated father, César (fantastically realised by Auteuil). Raphaël Personnaz’s Marius will probably be most recognisable as Anna Karenina’s lover in the recent Hollywood adaptation of the same name, and that classical acting ability is to the fore here. Naturalistic yet melodramatic, Auteuil’s Marius is torn between his lust for adventure with the call of the sea, and his growing realisation of the love he feels for his childhood friend, Fanny. His jealousy is aroused by a proposal to the very young Fanny made by Honoré Panisse, (the exceptionally smart and amusing Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a respected but aging local gentleman. Fanny, played by the stunning and mesmerising relative-newcomer Victoire Bélézy, somehow returns Marius’ love, and he is kept from the ocean by her fervour and adoration just as she is kept from the possibility of marriage and a home by his indecision. ‘La mer’ still calls, and Fanny must make the choice between what she wants and what she knows Marius needs. When we then move to Fanny’s heartbreaking story, in the second of the trilogy, Fanny, we see the repercussions of this decision – some more desperate than others, and requiring the kind of response only early-20th century values could provide. Through it all, Marius’ father César watches on – intertwining with the lives of his son, his son’s lover, his friend Panisse and his own attempts to continue building a life running a central bar at the port of Marseille.
Taken together, both movies provided a vision of the past so perfect that it was startling to have to leave it…watching Marius followed by Fanny was a beautiful double-bill that only missed César’s contribution to the story (coming in early 2014). Auteuil has lovingly created that golden age of cinema that Hollywood chases so ardently, yet never quite delivers, leaving a lingering sense of having travelled backwards in time. Achingly performed and gorgeously filmed, Marius and Fanny weave a slow-moving tale of melodrama, comedy and life. His final instalment cannot come soon enough, as the fate of Fanny and Marius awaits César’s final tale which, if told as touchingly and fervently as these, will close the Marseille trilogy with all the heart and beauty it deserves.
Marius and Fanny are released on 6th December 2013