Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. Bastille Day is a month and a half away, and that means only one thing here at TDYLF- it’s time to gear up for the annual 50 Greatest French Films list. My next month is going to be flooded with French films as I try to play catch-up. There’s a pair of films I’ve been meaning to re-watch for quite some time- Jean de Florette and the sequel, Manon des Sources, both from 1986. It had been so long since my first viewing that it was almost impossible to rank them appropriately in the French oeuvre. That has been corrected.
The First Viewing
I first saw both films in 1992 when I was a sophomore in high school. Since I’d learned a little more French when I was younger, I was ahead of my classmates and my teacher had crafted a special lesson plan for me. That’s not a humble brag. I didn’t do anything special. I had simply grown up in a different place from the other kids that went to my high school, so I had more opportunities for exposure to French. At any rate, part of the curriculum involved watching and translating a few films. Foremost among them was Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.
As I grew up, I discovered that a lot of other people who learned French had a similar experience with that very same pair of films. And the commonality of it led me to wonder if maybe it was more common, less “special”, than other French films. I honestly don’t remember too much about the film itself. I was so busy trying to understand the words that were being used that the plot and everything else mostly fell by the wayside. I do, however, remember thinking that it was awesome that my teacher would show me a movie with nudity in it. Fortunately, nobody said anything during that scene so translation was the farthest thing from my mind. Generally speaking, I had a very fond and nostalgic feeling about the two movies because they were two of the first foreign films I’d ever seen and I watched them when I knew more about the French language than at any other time in my life. Also, boobs. But beyond those things, I couldn’t defend my opinions about the movies.
As I mentioned, the annual French list is quickly approaching. And it seems almost criminal to not have a valid opinion about a pair of French films that are so universally known around French classes around America. It had to be corrected. After the re-watch, it falls in a very odd place for me. The major criteria for me when I make that list, starting last year, is that special weight should be given to how much influence a film has moving forward, how well it reflects French attitudes, and how innovative or groundbreaking it is in the way it conveys the story (either via camerawork or plot structure).
Purely in that regard, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources stumbles in comparison to the other titans of French cinema. The story is more of a Greek tragedy than anything uniquely French. The only “influence” that I can think that it had was in a very early Simpsons episode– The Crêpes of Wrath (1990)–that references the two nefarious farmers. The cinematography is gorgeous in that it captures the beauty of the French countryside, but it didn’t break any new ground with technique.
However, take it out of my own (very subjective) framework for what makes “great” French cinema, and both films shine. The story is tremendous and engaging, better than the overwhelming majority of films that I already have on the list. As I mentioned, it’s reminiscent of Greek tragedy. All of the major players have giant sweeping character arcs that flesh out the tragedy wonderfully. It works spectacularly as a tale of vengeance. The story itself is ripe with symbolism and foreshadowing. It’s believed that the treatment of Jean, the outsider, speaks to the inherent xenophobia of France. And the “community with a secret, outsider seeking vengeance” storyline is indirectly evocative of at least a few different films in French cinema, most notably Le Corbeau (1943).
I don’t want to spoil the surprise of where it’ll end up on the list (or even if it makes the list at all). But you can know that the story earned it a lot of points. I may just have to re-calibrate some of my criteria for the list, even if only slightly.