More Than Plays on Film: Marcel Pagnol’s “Marseille Trilogy” Restored by Janus Films
By Christopher Weedman.
Janus Films’ stunning 4K restoration of the “Marseille Trilogy” by the esteemed Marcel Pagnol is one of the essential revivals of the year. Adapted from Pagnol’s stage plays set in the provincial port city of Marseille in southern France, the three installments – Marius (Alexander Korda, 1931), Fanny (Marc Allégret, 1932), and César (Pagnol, 1936) – are among the most charming and poignant films that the golden age of French cinema has to offer. Together, they tell an at turns comedic and tragic tale of two young lovers, who are painfully separated as a result of misconceived wanderlust, untimely misunderstandings, and often-hypocritical social mores about the need to protect familial honor at all costs.
Released between 1931 and 1936, the “Marseille Trilogy” is the apex of Pagnol’s achievements in the cinema. During this period, Pagnol used his acclaim as one of France’s most beloved dramatists and novelists to enter into filmmaking, where, after collaborating with directors Alexander Korda and Marc Allégret on Marius and Fanny, he became a director himself with the comedy Le Gendre de Monsieur Poirier (1933), an adaptation of the stage play by Emile Augier and Jules Sandeau. Known for overseeing all aspects of his films, Pagnol would eventually open his own studio, where he would frequently work with the same performers and technicians to make his films (Bowles 2).
Yet because of still-lingering critical attitudes against what Frankfurt School theorist Siegfried Kracauer denounced as the “staginess” and “uncinematic” nature of many play-into-film adaptations (61), Pagnol’s film achievements have long been minimized. In director François Truffaut’s collection of critical writings, The Films in My Life (1978), the former auteur critic hailed both Pagnol and the similarly underrated Sacha Guitry (whose witty and sophisticated comedies The Story of a Cheat, 1936; The Pearls of the Crown, 1937; Désiré, 1937; and Quadrille, 1938 were the subject of an excellent four-disc collection from the Criterion Collection in 2010 as part of its modestly-priced Eclipse label) as French realist filmmakers, who were “underestimated by historians of cinema” during their careers (25). Thankfully, today’s film critics and scholars – particularly Brett Bowles in his insightful 2012 monograph on Pagnol for Manchester University Press – are starting to recognize both Pagnol’s experimentalism with early sound (including the recording of synchronous sound on location) and his proto-realist aesthetic (often incorporating location shooting and provincial performers with regional dialects and limited formal training), which postwar European filmmakers Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Jean-Luc Godard, and Truffaut credited as being a significant influence on the Italian Neorealist and French New Wave movements (Bowles 5 and 191-193).
Pagnol’s “Marseille Trilogy” chronicles the star-crossed romance between lifelong friends Marius (Pierre Fresnay) and Fanny (Orane Demazis). The budding lovers live a simple working-class life in Marseille with their widowed parents, César Olivier (Raimu) and Honorine Cabanis (Alida Rouffe), who operate a bar and shellfish market stall, respectively. This ordinary and, at least on the surface, uneventful life is beginning to take its toll on Marius. Although he realizes that the sweet and innocent Fanny longs for him to ask for her hand in marriage, he is reluctant to become entrapped due to his desire to become a merchant sailor and see the world. Ever since watching sailors sail away to the Leeward Island in the West Indies as a child, Marius has dreamed of travelling to exotic locales such as Aden, Bombay, Colombo, Makassar, Suez, and Sydney. Nonetheless, he starts feeling increasing inner-conflict about leaving Fanny behind when he discovers that she is being courted by Honoré Panisse (Fernand Charpin). An elderly sailmaker and widower, Panisse has already won the favor of Fanny’s mother due to his considerable wealth.
Marius originally plans to stay in Marseille and marry Fanny out of fear of losing her, but his intended fiancée understands that any marriage between them would result in unhappiness if he was kept from pursuing his dreams. When Fanny lies by implying her intention to marry Panisse, Marius joins up for a five-year tour of duty. She intends to wait for her true love to return, but a month after her departure, she is compelled by her mother to marry Panisse (who knows of her love affair with Marius) when she discovers that she is pregnant with Marius’ unborn child. Although this sacrifice of true love is seen as the best possible solution for both Fanny and her future son Césariot (later played as an adult in César by André Fouché), it will have serious repercussions for the Olivier, Cabanis, and Panisse families over the next two decades.
As Bowles has argued, the notion that Marius, Fanny, and César are simply filmed theatre is erroneous. This is demonstrated by a formal examination of the films, particularly Marius (a close collaboration between Pagnol and the Hungarian-born émigré director Alexander Korda, who subsequently became one of the British cinema’s most prominent directors and producers following the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933) with its intricate yet subtle shot compositions that expressionistically highlight the emotional dilemmas of the characters. For instance, during the introduction of Marius, the character is seen walking out of the front door of his father’s bar. In this shot, Marius is framed in the middle foreground of a medium long-shot with his back to the camera. On the sides of the frame, he is flanked by Fanny selling cockles on the left and the port of a ship on the right. The composition conveys Marius’ two life choices, which will dictate the fates of three families. The importance of this decision is further alluded by the lush musical score by Francis Gromon.
Moreover, a subsequent moment with Fanny coming to Panisse’s sail-making shop to turn down his initial advances is aptly framed in long shot to suggest the lack of intimacy that she feels for him. In addition to these compositions, the films boast experimental uses of film sound, notably an amusing sound bridge in Marius featuring a ship’s steam whistle giving way to the sound of steam emanating from coffee brewing. This ironic moment suggests the need for Marius to stop daydreaming about his high sea adventures and get back to work.
Reportedly, the critical misconception about the “uncinematic” nature of the “Marseille Trilogy” is, in part, due to the fact that Pagnol was cited as saying that he primarily saw the cinema as a means of recording his own plays for posterity and providing them with a larger stage than the theatre could ever provide (Bowles 49). In this respect, Pagnol’s films are more successful than most attempts to preserve theatre through film, a mission that later would become the focal point of producer Ely Landau’s American Film Theatre in the early 1970s with its mission to bring the best classic and contemporary theatre productions to the screen with, whenever possible, the same casts that brought them acclaim on the stage. While the AFT productions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) and Simon Gray’s Butley (Harold Pinter, 1974) were worth watching for their stellar lead performances by Lee Marvin and Alan Bates, other entries paled in comparison to their stage counterparts, particularly The Man in the Glass Booth (Arthur Hiller, 1975). This controversial adaptation of actor-writer Robert Shaw’s stage play exhibited the company moving away from its original ethos by inexplicably recasting Maximilian Schell as Arthur Goldman, an eccentric Jewish millionaire brought up on Nazi war crimes, a role that brought Donald Pleasence immense acclaim in the West End and Broadway during the late 1960s.
This lack of conviction over casting is not found in “The Marseille Trilogy,” given that Pagnol was adamant that the original stage cast recreate their roles. Admittedly, much of the unique charm of the provincial dialects is lost on an English-speaking audience reading the subtitles, but, regardless, the exquisite nature of the performances is readily apparent. While Fresnay, Demazis, and Charpin bring a great deal of dignity and warmth to their performances, the colorful Raimu as Marius’ tough yet compassionate father César commands every scene he inhabits. Hailed by such diverse screen stars as Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Zero Mostel, and Arletty as the world’s finest actor (Shipman 488), Raimu is frequently credited alongside Charlie Chaplin as a performer capable of moving from comedy to pathos at a moment’s notice. This is readily apparent during a poignant funeral scene in César, where the actor has his character subtly go from a moment of mourning to subtle comedy when he realizes that he is wearing someone else’s bowler hat (a visual nod to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp”?) that is too small for his head.
The new 4K prints of Marius, Fanny, and César were supervised by the writer’s grandson Nicolas Pagnol and film restorationist Hervé Pichard of La Cinémathèque Française. Having already screened in such locations as the Film Forum in New York and the Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles, the trilogy is currently playing exclusively at Landmark Theatres’ Ritz at the Bourse Cinema in Philadelphia. Those audiences outside of the Philadelphia area will soon have the opportunity to enjoy these beautifully restored prints when the Criterion Collection releases them on both Blu-ray and DVD on June 20th. Their multi-disc set will also include an array of supplements: a video introduction by French director Bertrand Tavernier; a pair of essays by Bowles and film critic Michael Atkinson; archival interviews with stars Demazis, Fresnay, and Robert Vattier; a new interview with Nicolas Pagnol; a short documentary on the harbor in Marseille by Pagnol; and excerpts from the 1973 documentary Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux de choisis.
Given what promises to be an essential Criterion Blu-ray and DVD release, I can only hope that more films from Pagnol’s oeuvre such as The Baker’s Wife (1938, a delightful comedy with Raimu, Charpin, and the sultry Ginette Leclerc about provincial villagers conspiring to help the cuckolded baker get his young wife back in order to get him to resume baking bread) will receive comparable restoration from Janus and Criterion in the near future.
Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in Film Studies. His scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) is in the current issue of Cinema Retro, published in January 2017.
Bowles, Brett (2012), Marcel Pagnol, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Kracauer, Siegfried (1997), Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 61.
Shipman, David (1980), The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, New York: Hill and Wang, pp. 488.
Truffaut, François (1978), The Films in My Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 25.