Re-Watchterpiece Theatre: Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources (1986)

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 oeuvreThat has been corrected.

Gérard Depardieu as the titular hunchback, Jean de Florette

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.

Yves Montand, in one of his final roles, and Daniel Auteuil in the role that would launch him closer to stardom.

The Re-Watch
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.

No longer a hare screeching as it’s caught by a buzzard, the beautiful Manon shall have her vengeance.

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.

16 Comments

Filed under Foreign Film, French Film, Movies, Re-Watchterpiece Theater

16 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theatre: Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources (1986)

  1. I actually haven’t seen these, and I’ve barely ever heard much of them, but they look good. As usual I’m anticipating your French film list with increasing ferocity and impatience.

    • I have to warn you, Tyler, it may be delayed a few weeks. There’s a local university that has a 2 week French film festival- on the big screen- starting July 14th. I can post the list on July 14th, but there are quite a few films I plan on seeing in the 2 weeks immediately after that. The list of what I’ll be seeing: Sans Soleil, Celine and Julie Go Boating, a re-watch of Children of Paradise and Grand Illusion, a re-watch of Week End, a re-watch of L’Atalante and Zero for Conduct, and The Mother and the Whore.

      I have a hunch that the new films and the re-watches might re-shape the way I look at a lot of those.

      • Definitely wait until after the festival – Sans Soleil and Celine and Julie are two of my favourite films of all time. I’m very excited that you’ll be seeing them!

  2. I’ve never seen them and I don’t know if I’ll watch them soon… I have other French films I want to see before getting to this one.
    Are you fluent in French? Cause it’s my mother tongue! It’s funny to learn that! Do you watch French films without the subtitles?

    • I used to be fluent. I’d even dream in French sometimes. But I stopped speaking it sometime around 1996, and I’ve forgotten so much. I can still read a little bit of French, and I pick up words and phrases when I watch the movies. But I definitely don’t watch without subtitles. An example- I saw Ma Nuit Chez Maud the other night. And it started snowing. The main character was looking at the snow and I thought “Il neige”. And then a second later, the character said “Il neige”. But that kind of thing doesn’t happen often.

      I went to France in 2006 and it made me realize just how much I had forgotten.

  3. Phil

    I watched Jean/Manon last year and they both are now on my all-time favorite list. I thought the ending of Manon was one of the best ever.

  4. Two classics and personal favourites of mine John. I could really go a re-watch myself soon.

  5. Vladdy

    I love these films. Yves Montand is amazing, especially in the second one, when he realizes the depths of his own nefariousness.

  6. I haven’t seen these films in quite some time, but I have very very fond memories of both of them. The acting and story are superb, plus, they are just so beautiful to watch. And then there’s Emmanuel Beart. She was simply stunning!

    And by the way, I just noticed a very striking similarity between her and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride. Do a Google image search for both actresses and tell me if I’m way off base here. The release date on both films is only one year apart, so I wonder if Rob Reiner was influenced at all when he was doing his casting for the Princess Buttercup role. Just curious. :)

    • I did a quick google search using both film’s titles and all I got was a bunch of Ok Cupid profiles from people who like both movies. So, singles using online dating sites agree with your assessment.

      Beart… wow. Those scenes were incredible. And French women in general… also wow.

  7. I’ve always loved this series. Depardieu turns in a legendary performance in the first, and Emmanuelle Béart is an undisputed Goddess in the second.

    • As long as Americans are learning French in high schools, this pair of movies will have a place. It amazes me how many people have seen these two purely for that reason.

  8. Pingback: For Your Consideration: Best New Lamb | Fogs' Movie Reviews

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