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MANON OF THE SPRING

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Béart
Director:  Claude Berri
Audio: French Stereo Surround
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: non-anamorphic, letterbox widescreen 2.35:1, color
Studio: MGM
Features: trailer
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: January 23, 2001

"She's the Holy Virgin of the hills.  If she'd marry me, I'd be happy as a king."

Film ****

Once long ago, according to Provencal folklore, there was a shepherdess who, having been wronged, exacted terrible vengeance upon her village.  For the playwright and director Marcel Pagnol, this regional legend was a source of much fascination.  Eventually, he used it as the basis for his film Manon des Sources (1953), which he wrote and directed.  Nearly ten years later, he would elaborate further upon the film's premise in his novel, L'eau des Collines (The Water of the Hills), a multi-generational saga about greed and redemption.

Some twenty years after its initial publication, this popular novel was once again adapted back into cinematic form.  This time, two films were created from the novel.  The first one, Jean de Florette (1986), was the story of Jean Caboret, a gentle city dweller from Crespin who realizes his dream of moving to the rural region of Provence to raise a farm.  Though he is an optimistic and dedicated farmer, he encounters many difficulties arising from the suspicions of local inhabitants wary of the stranger.  Starring three of France's finest actors (Gerald Depardieu, Yves Montand, and Daniel Auteuil) and beautifully photographed in the picturesque French countryside, Jean de Florette was an exceptionally compelling tale of human fallacy and the triumph of greed over kindness.  The ultimately tragic developments of the narrative set the stage for the second film, Manon des Sources (1986).

More than just a sequel, Manon des Sources is a direct continuation of the storyline of Jean de Florette, though set several years afterwards.  Due to the close association between the films, watching the first one will naturally give greater weight to the proceedings in the second.  However, Manon des Sources is powerful enough to stand alone and provides sufficient plot elements so that viewers who have not seen the first film will not be at a loss.

Manon des Sources also features the lush cinematography of Jean de Florette.  The film has an aura of rustic, graceful beauty, and you can almost feel the radiance of the summer sun as it warms the vast, green fields and valleys of Provence.  The central town, Les Bastides Blanches, is the very portrait of a more leisurely, old-country village of a bygone era.  Trade goods come and go by mules, and the community center is a fountain, where neighbors gather for spring water and friendly gossip.  Yet in this bucolic setting, the atonement for transgressions from the first film must transpire.

As Manon des Sources commences, ten years have passed since the events of the first film.  Jean Caboret's wife no longer resides in the countryside.  She has returned to the city to concentrate on her career as an operatic singer, while her young daughter has chosen instead to remain in rural Provence.  No longer a child, Manon (Béart) has blossomed into a wild beauty, freely roaming the rolling hills of this pastoral landscape.  Now a shepherdess, her presence is often discussed in town circles though she is seldom seen.  Manon has become a sylvan sprite, vanishing into the hills from all who would seek to find her.

The arid land of Romarins that once belonged to the Caborets is now owned by Ugolin (Auteuil), a peasant farmer.  He has cultivated the soil to the point where it is fertile once more and now regularly produces a profitable crop of red carnations.  Ugolin is, in fact, the last of the Soubeyrans, a venerable and once well-established family in this region.  Consequently, Ugolin is lonely, despite frequent visits from his elderly uncle, César (Montand), who lives in a nearby country manor.

One day, Ugolin has a stroke of good fortune.  Wandering the meadows in search of rabbits, he hears a distant melody.  Intrigued, he traces the music back to its source, a shallow valley wherein he unexpectedly finds Manon dancing as she plays her father's harmonica.  Manon is unaware of his presence, and Ugolin stays hidden as he spies upon her in spellbound beguilement.  Soon, he is in love.  Later on, he confides in his uncle of his new secret and decides to pursue Manon for his wife.

However, such a union in marriage can never come to pass, a consequence of Jean de Florette's final scenes.  In that film, the young Manon had learned the truth behind the Soubeyrans' implications in the failure of her family's farm.  That revelation devastated her, and ever since, Manon has grown to despise Ugolin and his uncle, blaming them for the fate that ultimately befell her family.  Should Ugolin attempt to woo her, he can only fail.

Manon's suppressed anger finally emerges one fateful day as she happens upon the conversation of two passing hunters in the fields.  She overhears them casually mentioning the townspeople's awareness of her father's troubles.  More revealingly, they could have saved her family's land with a few words but had chosen instead to remain silent those many years ago.  Upon hearing the hunters speak of this deed, Manon runs away in a despondent rage, crying and flailing about in desperation.  Later, seeking vengeance in the still of a summer evening, she attempts to burn Ugolin's carnations, only to be thwarted by a sudden rain shower.  However, another opportunity soon presents itself to Manon not only to punish Ugolin and César but also the townspeople as well.  She accepts it, thereby setting in motion the tragic events which lead to the inevitability of the film's conclusion.

Throughout Manon des Sources, there is a foreboding thread of inevitability, perhaps symbolized most dramatically by the Soubeyrans.  Once, they were the region's most affluent and influential family, numbering in the dozens.  Now, all that remains is César and his nephew Ugolin.  The venerable César is too old to take a bride, and his nephew is an uncharismatic bumpkin with little prospects for marriage.  They appear destined to be the end of the Soubeyran line, and with their passing, the region's long-established traditions will surely undergo irrevocable changes.

Given that the setting for the story is of a France just prior to the first world war, the signs of change have already begun to appear.  The town, long a bastion of rural tranquility, has started to modernize.  The mayor owns the town's first telephone, which he proudly shows off.  Motor vehicles from the distant city have begun to appear more frequently, bringing supplies and tidings from the outside world.  Even the arrival many years ago of the city newcomer Jean Caboret, with his modern ideas on farming, had threatened the community's time-honored values.  This inevitable passing of the old traditions and old ways is exemplified most dramatically in the character of César.

Indeed, while the film draws its title from its female protagonist, the true tragic figure of Manon des Sources is César Soubeyran, as portrayed by Yves Montand.  Montand at the time was one of French cinema's most respected actors.  Though his long and illustrious career had encompassed many excellent films, such as Clouzot's tense masterpiece Wages of Fear, Montand's dramatic role in this Marcel Pagnol saga is perhaps his finest.  His performance as César solemnly expresses the old man's weariness and acquiescence to age.  His César is a man who struggles to forestall the fated tides of change in an attempt to maintain an august stance and to retain his dying way of life.  One of Montand's final scenes features an astounding emotional collapse.  He sits silently upon a bench, having just received terrible news.  Yet, his response is measured in a silent, dignified manner.  Only his eyes and the subtle changes in his facial expression convey the depth of the heartbreaking grief that has overwhelmed him.  I have rarely seen an actor able to evoke this degree of emotional anguish so effectively, with such economy of scale.  While Béart's performance as the emotionally-anguished Manon is quite good as well, ultimately, the true strength of the film's dramatic impact lies in Montand's tragic portrayal of César Soubeyran.

Emmanuelle Béart was relatively young when she appeared in Manon des Sources .  Although she is surpassed by Montand, her strong performance as the embittered Manon was a very promising early indication of her potential as an actress.  In later years, Béart would gradually emerge as one of France's premier actresses.  While American audiences will know her principally as the heroine from the generic (and confusing) action flick Mission Impossible, her most memorable roles have been dramatic ones, including her award-nominated performances in Un Coeur en Hiver (re-uniting her with Auteuil) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud.  On a happy trivial note, in real life, Béart and Auteuil did eventually fall in love after all.  They even had one daughter together... named Nelly!

Manon des Sources is ultimately a tale of redemption.  Like a classical Greek tragedy, it advances along a simple narrative while unveiling a story that is thematically rich.  In its devastating conclusion, it completes the tragic arc that had begun in Jean de Florette.  Manon des Sources is not only that rare sequel which equals (if not surpasses) its antecedent film, but it is a powerful film in its own right.  When united, these two films form perhaps the finest epic saga to emerge from France.

Video ** 1/2

This DVD is part of MGM's World Films collection, a series of internationally praised films which also includes Jean de Florette.  Manon des Sources is presented in breath-taking widescreen, however the transfer could have used more attention to details.  The few night-time or dark scenes are problematic, as they have a grainy appearance with occasional blocky break-up of the background.  Other scenes show shimmer defects which are somewhat annoying.  As for the print, it is decent enough but has more fine scratches and dust marks than I'd like to see in such a relatively recent film.  It is a pity that MGM was not more meticulous in its handling of its World Films collection, given the merits of these excellent films.

Audio ** 1/2

The audio is presented in stereo surround.  Although it is nothing extraordinary, it is clean and quite acceptable, with no pops or hiss.  The audio is perfectly adequate for this non-action, character-driven film, which would not benefit greatly from a 5.1 upgrade, anyhow.

Before moving on, I must mention the musical score!  The theme music to Manon des Sources is incredibly moving and may haunt you for some time after the film has concluded.  It recalls the poignancy of Nino Rota's Godfather theme and Ennio Morricone's legendary score for Days of Heaven.  The score communicates much of the visual beauty of the pastoral settings yet also gives a melancholy voice to the eventual tragic nature of the saga.  In this regard, it represents the perfect marriage between imagery and sound.

Features 1/2 *

The DVD only contains a worn trailer for the film.  It is a dismal full frame version that partially cut everyone's faces off!  It only serves to show, by contrast, how exceptional the film's actual widescreen photography was.  At any rate, a magnificent film such as Manon des Sources deserves better than just this meander offering here as the sole feature!

Trivia note: The critical success of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources led to two more films, in 1991, based upon Marcel Pagnol's 4-volume autobiography, Souvenirs d'Enfance.  Interested viewers may wish to seek out those two films - My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle.

Summary:

Manon des Sources and Jean de Florette comprise one of the most beautiful, heart-rending sagas in European cinema.  Offering a poignant score, luminous cinematography, a classic parable of love and redemption, and solid acting all around (including tremendous performances by Yves Montand), these two films are among the finest that France has to offer.  Highly recommended!