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The man behind the French film classic ‘Jean de Florette’

Marcel Pagnol told extraordinary stories about ordinary people against the backdrop of his beloved Provençal countryside

The 1986 adaptation of Jean de Florette stars Gerard Depardieu; the rugged Provençal landscape of Marcel Pagnol’s hometown Aubagne Pic: Olga Popova / Florent Delessert

Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974) immortalised rural life in Provence. 

Born in Aubagne, he was the son of a teacher and a dressmaker and grew up in Marseille, achieving excellent marks at school. Summers were spent in the Provençal countryside for his mother’s health. 

His mother died when he was just 15 years old, and two years later his father remarried. His new stepmother was only eight years his senior and he did not accept the marriage. 

Having passed the bac, he went to university in Aix-en-Provence, where he co-founded a literary review and published his first novel.

At the outbreak of WW1, he was conscripted into the army but demobilised in 1915 on health grounds. 

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First plays were not well-received

In 1916, he married Simone Collin, finished his degree and became a teacher, being posted to different schools every year. 

He never stopped writing, and when in 1922 he was posted to a job in Paris, very soon became immersed in the city’s literary world.

His first playwriting efforts for the theatre were not well-received, but by 1927 he had left teaching to write full-time, and his play Topaze (1928), was a huge success. He never looked back. 

Marius, produced in 1929, was a smash hit and evolved into his famous Trilogie Marseillaise – three tragic plays, Marius, Fanny, and César, which were all eventually turned into films. 

Films are darkly romantic

The films proved to be a groundbreaking foray into realistic cinema, as opposed to pure escapism. 

Grumpy César secretly has a soft heart. He owns a bar on the waterfront of the Old Port in Marseille, where his son Marius works while dreaming of life at sea. 

Marius’s sweetheart, Fanny, attracts the attention of Panisse, a wealthy middle-aged sail maker looking for a pretty young wife. 

The films are gloomy, fateful and darkly romantic. Perhaps the appeal was that the films showed ordinary people experiencing heightened emotions normally associated with glamorous characters played by beautiful film stars.

First French ‘talkies’ were smash hit

Marcel Pagnol had been separated from his wife and involved with other women since 1926, when he began a relationship with a British dancer called Kitty Murphy. In 1930 they had a son, Jacques Pagnol.

By this time, the talkies were beginning to take over from silent cinema, and Pagnol was fascinated by the possibilities of film-making. 

The film version of Marius was one of the very first French talkies, and a smash hit. The second film, Fanny, released in 1932, was shot in the legendary Bar de la Marine in Marseille’s Old Port.

Marcel Pagnol had hit the big time. He was famous, well-respected, and immensely wealthy. 

He sold film rights to Topaze and set up his own film-making studios in Paris and Marseille. 

He also bought a domaine in Provence, where he had spent so many happy summer holidays as a child. 

During the 1930s he made one film after another. He also had two more children, Jean-Pierre and Francine, from different relationships.

Farmed carnations during WW2

The war put the brakes on his activities. He was divorced in 1939, and in 1941 he bought the Château de la Buzine. He bought the property sight unseen, and only realised when he visited it that he knew at least the grounds very well. 

His mother used to tell him about a time when she had wandered through the grounds of the chateau and been surprised by a grounds-keeper. The incident went down in family history as his mother’s Big Scare.

He had the intention of turning the chateau into a Cité de Cinéma, but due to WW2, he had to put his plans on hold. 

To avoid being forced to make Nazi propaganda, he sold his studios to Gaumont, although he stayed on as creative director. Bowing to pressure, he made a film defending the Vichy government. 

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In 1942, he bought a property, the Domaine de l’Etoile, in La Gaude, near Marseille. Here, he employed his film crews as agricultural labourers growing carnations to prevent them from being conscripted and taken to Germany as forced labour.

In 1945, he married the actress Jacqueline Bouvier, and together they had Frédéric (1946) and Estelle (1951-1954). The couple stayed together until his death. 

Pagnol filmed first version of Manon des Sources

After the war, he was elected president of the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, a position he used to defend writers and artists who had not exactly collaborated but who had, like him, been pressured into working during the occupation. 

At the age of 51, he was elected to the Académie Française.

His 1948 film La Belle Meunière was the first full colour French film shot in France by a French crew using French technical processing. It was as successful as his other films. 

From 1951, he and Jacqueline lived in Monaco, but after the death of their daughter in 1954 they moved back to Paris. Pagnol had by then finished filming Manon des Sources in Provence. Strangely enough, the film was not particularly well received, unlike the critically acclaimed 1986 version.

Wrote prequel Jean de Florette

In 1966, Pagnol wrote two novels based on the film; Jean de Florette was a prequel to Manon des Sources. These formed the basis for the international box-office hit films starring Gérard Depardieu, Elizabeth Depardieu (wife of Gérard at the time), Daniel Auteuil, and Yves Montand.

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The films were shot back to back. In Jean de Florette, Yves Montand played César, another of Pagnol’s crusty Provençal patriarchs, and Daniel Auteuil played Ugolin, his ratty nephew. 

Gérard and Elizabeth Depardieu played Jean de Florette and his wife Aimée, a naive couple from the city with an overly romantic view of country life. 

After WW1, César and Ugolin have a plan to save the family fortunes by growing carnations. 

They try to buy a neighbour’s land and, failing to do so, cement over the water supply in an act of spite. When the land is inherited by Jean de Florette, César and Ugolin do not tell him about the blocked water source. 

Jean struggles to make the farm survive, but eventually takes a mortgage on the land from César in order to sink a well. When he is killed in the process, his widow and orphaned daughter lose the farm. 

In celebration, the two baddies return to unblock the water source, unaware that young Manon is watching and has understood their dark scheme.

Films won multiple awards

In Manon des Sources, Ugolin falls in love with Manon (played by Emmanuelle Béart), who has grown into a beautiful shepherdess. She, however, is in love with a young teacher who has recently arrived in the area. 

By chance, she discovers that all the villagers knew about the blocked-up source on her father’s land, and decided not to tell him because they did not welcome a stranger living amongst them. 

When she accidentally finds the water source which supplies the entire village, she blocks it off.

The subsequent panic in the village results in people turning on César and Ugolin, who confess their part in the demise of Jean de Florette. 

Ugolin proposes to Manon, and when she turns him down, he commits suicide. 

Manon and the teacher unblock the village’s water source and a few weeks later, they are married.

César then discovers that Jean de Florette was none other than his natural son, confesses all to the local priest, writes a will leaving all his money and land to his natural granddaughter Manon, and dies the same night. 

Both films were brilliantly cast and acted, and beautiful to look at, ensuring them a place in cinema history. They won multiple awards and introduced Pagnol’s work to new generations of fans.

Pagnol worked in new artist medium - television

After the release of the original version of Manon des Sources, however, Pagnol simply went on working, writing, directing and producing films. 

By the mid-1950s, he was looking over his shoulder at the theatre. Turning away from the silver screen, he wrote some plays but when they were not well received, he switched to novels. 

As he turned 60, his nostalgia for life in Provence between the wars was undimmed, and he wrote the hugely successful La Gloire de mon Père, which sold 50,000 copies in its first month of publication. 

He followed this with Le Château de ma Mère in 1958, which was equally successful. 

His re-launched literary career continued into the 1960s with the re-working of his script for Manon des Sources. He also worked for television, which was kicking off as a new artistic medium at that period. He died of cancer in 1974, at the age of 79.

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