Manon Around the House

ON FILM:

Manon of the Spring

Written by Claude Berri and Gerard Brach

Directed by Claude Berri

At the USA/Harvard Square

PROBABLY because most of us think this is where the action is, the big city has been the focus of most films made over the past few decades. In his epic depiction of events in a small town in Provence, Director Claude Berri defies this tradition of citification. In both Jean de Florette and its recently released sequel, Manon of the Spring, Berri proves that a sleepy rural village may not always be quite what it seems.

Based on a film and book by Marcel Pagnol, a French film-maker and champion of the peasantry, this two-part tale of the decline of a powerful family combines the charm of Provence peasantry with the intrigue of a Greek tragedy.

Jean de Florette, set in the 1920s, described the attempt of the clever Papet (Yves Montand) and his dim-witted nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil)--the last remaining members of what used to be the richest and most glorious family in the region--to wrest the land of a neighboring farmer, a hunchback.

They do this by blocking the secret source of the spring that waters his fields. Although they intend to drive him away from the land, they end up killing him.

Manon of the Spring picks up the story after a gap of a decade or so, when the hunchback's daughter Manon (Emmanuelle Beart) decides to take her revenge. Although both films were made at the same time and star mostly the same actors, Manon was released separately, both here and in France. You do not really have to have seen the first half to enjoy Manon, but it helps.

MONTAND IS a vivid old rascal. He is protective of the family fortune, telling Ugolin that it was only by careful economy that he had managed to save what was left of the money his ancestors squandered. With his broad hat and cane, Montand is the essence of the country gentleman. Except that he's always scheming. Scheming to save his money, enlarge his property, control the town, and marry off his nephew. But his schemes don't always work out as he expects.

Ugolin is a tribute to Barri's ability as a director. He has turned an apparently handsome actor into a rat-faced, bucktoothed farmer. And Auteuil's appearance isn't the only thing that makes his character seem real. As he galumphs across the screen, utters phrases whose humor he cannot comprehend, and makes abortive attempts to win Manon's heart, he seems to be the archetypal peasant.

And Berri's cinematography sets out to record the archetypical Provencal village. Barri shoots glassy stares at the Midi countryside as easily as close-ups of Ugolin's unshaven cheek or Papet at the table. Unfortunately, Manon appears to be just another landscape. Beart is an extraordinary beauty. She has long blond hair and baby-blue eyes and a face that could launch a thousand ships. But she has almost no lines in the entire two hours of the film.

Manon of the Spring is like a child's fairy tale. It's simple and hearty, and though its enduring sadness prevents it from warming the cockles of its audience's heart, it is certain to leave even the sternest critic with a feeling of satisfaction.