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Marcel Pagnol’s “Marseille Trilogy”: An Essential Reemerges on Criterion

Marius ( )

Marius (1931)

By Christopher Weedman.

Among the most impressive film restorations of 2017 was Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy (1931-36), which I reviewed last March when Janus Films screened it theatrically in select US cities. Those not fortunate enough to live near such splendid art-house and independent film venues as the Film Forum in New York and the Landmark Theatres’ Ritz at the Bourse Cinema in Philadelphia now have the opportunity to see this landmark French film trilogy on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection. The company has produced one of its most essential releases, which, hopefully, will further rectify the critical reputation of Pagnol. Once viewed as an “uncinematic” filmmaker only interested in obtaining a larger audience for his stage plays, Pagnol was instead an important innovator, whose films paved the way for Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave due to his commitment to shooting in natural locations during the early sound era of the 1930s. More importantly, Pagnol’s affection for the colorful working-class people of the port city of Marseille demonstrates his deserved place alongside Jean Renoir as one of France’s great humanist filmmakers.

Criterion’s box set features the three installments, Marius (Alexander Korda, 1931), Fanny (Marc Allégret, 1932), and César (Marcel Pagnol, 1936) with the same gorgeous 4K digital prints and uncompressed monaural soundtracks from the theatrical reissue, which were painstakingly restored by La Compagnie Méditerranéenne de Film, MPC, and La Cinémathèque Française. Since I critiqued both the films and prints in my prior review, I will instead focus this follow-up discussion exclusively on the wealth of welcome supplements that Criterion has culled together for their three-disc Blu-ray release (a four-disc DVD set is also available).

Mar 02The supplements for the first disc of Marius commence with a useful 19-minute introduction to the trilogy by Bertrand Tavernier. The French filmmaker discusses how he first encountered the films of Pagnol and his equally maligned contemporary Sacha Guitry through the film criticism of François Truffaut. Despite the fact that Pagnol and Guitry were roundly disparaged by post-World War II French film critics for possessing directing styles that were fueled more by theatrical traditions than cinematic ones, Tavernier acknowledges that Truffaut was an ardent admirer of their films, which he felt were technically very “modern” and “innovative.” Yet despite the support of Truffaut, he explains that the poor-quality prints of the Marseille Trilogy that used to circulate only reinforced the misconception that Pagnol was uninterested in visual storytelling. Tavernier admits that his recent viewing of the restoration was a revelation, but, at the same time, points out that he already understood there was more to Pagnol than many realized due to having previously seen his experimental use of natural locations and direct sound in his other early sound films, notably the poignant Angèle (1934, featuring Orane Demazis, who again entered into “Fanny” territory by playing an unwed country girl forced to become a Parisian prostitute after becoming pregnant).

Tavernier discusses the unconventional filmmaking methods of Pagnol, particularly his practice of sometimes listening to film takes in the sound truck as they were being shot. “He had the attitude that if it is good when you hear it, it will be good when you see it,” Tavernier states. “If there is nothing wrong in the way that people are delivering the lines, if the beats are right, and the rhythm is okay, that meant that the take is good.” Admittedly, this anecdote, on the surface, appears to validate the popular notion that Pagnol was disinterested in the visual nature of the cinema, but instead, as Tavernier stresses, his remarkable aural instincts enabled him to make the correct choice more often than not. Pagnol was not alone in using this unorthodox technique, since, as Hollywood actress Alexis Smith once revealed to Tavernier, Raoul Walsh also possessed similar faith in sound and occasionally would turn his back to the camera and listen to takes during the shooting of the boxing biopic Gentleman Jim (1942).

The first disc continues with a heartfelt 29-minute interview with Pagnol’s grandson Nicolas Pagnol, who, in part, funded the restoration through an online campaign on the crowdfunding website Ulule in 2014. He notes how the controlled use of lighting in Marius was due to the direction of Alexander Korda. However, despite his grandfather’s fondness for his famed Hungarian-born collaborator, Pagnol desired more control over his films and, as they progressed, he employed a freer style of direction. His own films possessed more location shooting and put greater emphasis on the emotion elicited from the actors through their dialogue than pictorial precision.

The supplements on this disc conclude with a fascinating 30-minute video essay by Brett Bowles, an associate professor of French at Indiana University, Bloomington, which analyzes how the broad appeal of the trilogy was, in part, due to Pagnol’s ability to bridge both the class and ideological divides of 1930s France through his employment of a more socially optimistic variation of poetic realism. While Marius, Fanny, and César paralleled poetic realist films such as Pépé le moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) and Le Quai des brumes/Port of Shadows (Marcel Carné, 1938) by focusing on class tension and characters whose fates are heavily determined by social forces beyond their control, Bowles observes how Pagnol (particularly in Fanny and César, the two films where he possessed the most artistic control) eschewed poetic realism’s fatalistic endings and dark visual style. “In direct contrast to the dark, fatalistic poetic realism of [Jean] Renoir, Duvivier, and Carné, Pagnol’s poetic realism is a sunny cinema of reconciliation that dramatizes the healing and social reintegration of angry, isolated, suffering individuals through comedy, friendship, and the richly performative use of language,” Bowles argues. This intriguing thesis is more fully explored in his perceptive monograph Marcel Pagnol (Manchester University Press, 2012), which is highly-recommended to those interested in the dramatist-filmmaker’s career.

Fanny ( )

Fanny (1932)

The second disc of Fanny possesses one of the box set’s finest gems: segments from the six-part French television documentary Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux choisis/Marcel Pagnol: Choice Excerpts (Georges Folgoas, 1973). Veteran television presenter Pierre Tchernia (the director of the French comedies Le viager/The Annuity, 1972 and Les gaspards/The Down-in-the-Hole Gang, 1974) conducts an in-depth and engaging interview with Pagnol about his early years in theatre and film. Quite charming and affable throughout their discussion, Pagnol discusses how he became fascinated with the cinema in 1930 after French actor Pierre Blanchar recommended that he travel to London to see an early “talkie” featuring Hollywood actress Bessie Love (presumably Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Oscar-winning musical The Broadway Melody, Harry Beaumont, 1929). Despite finding the film’s use of sound primitive, he saw it three times and immediately became convinced that “talkies” posed a serious threat to the future of theatre. The following year, he collaborated with Korda on the film version of Marius. Reminiscent of the mutual respect shared by director Joseph Losey and dramatist-screenwriter Harold Pinter on their long-term collaboration on The Servant (1963), Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1970), Pagnol attests to the reciprocal nature of their working relationship. While Pagnol taught the silent cinema veteran Korda how to best utilize talking actors, Korda taught the filmmaking novice the visual language of the medium. The resulting film (shot simultaneously in separate French, German, and Swedish-language versions) was such an international success that, according to producer André Daven in his onscreen interview, it helped bail its American financier, Paramount Pictures, out of financial difficulties stemming from the Great Depression.

Other onscreen interviewees in these segments include theatre critic Jean-Jacques Gautier, studio painter Pierre Ambrogiani, publicity executive Antoine Toé, and esteemed director René Clair, who, quite interestingly, admits his admiration for Pagnol’s film La femme du boulanger/The Baker’s Wife (1938) despite their well-publicized disagreement about the use of sound film to capture theatre on film. Difficult to see in its entirety in the United States (PAL video copies of five of the six episodes are available at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris), Criterion has included all of the third episode and a 27-minute extract from the fourth episode. If any additional Pagnol films are released by Criterion in the future, the company should strongly consider including the entire documentary as a bonus disc, since it is an invaluable look at his body of work.

The third disc includes the final film, César and a trio of archival interviews with members of the trilogy’s stellar cast. The first of these is a 3-minute interview with French Algerian-born actress Orane Demazis, which aired on French television on March 30, 1967. At the time, she was fresh off having co-starred with Macha Méril and Patrick Jouané in the romantic drama Au pan coupé/Wall Engravings (Guy Gilles, 1968). Demazis admits having become frustrated with how the character of Fanny “pigeonholed” her, particularly given that she played other types of roles both prior to and following the trilogy. She amusingly recalls her legendary co-star Raimu as a “spontaneous…complete performer” with a penchant for yelling obscenities on the set. At first frightened by his frequent outbursts, she eventually gave him his comeuppance by compiling a list of some of his choicest expressions and hurled them back at him in front of the cast and crew. Another tribute to Raimu is provided by Pierre Fresnay, who, in a 6-minute interview from a September 25, 1956 episode of the French television series Cinépanorama, offers a more textured portrait of the actor. Although Fresnay admits that their relationship was merely a professional one, he sensed Raimu to be a complex and contradictory man, who, in his view, adopted a loud and boisterous personality to mask a shyness stemming from an unhappy childhood.

César (1936)

César (1936)

The third and final interview is a 10-minute discussion with character actor Robert Vattier, a regular member of Pagnol’s stock company, from an April 20, 1976 television profile of his career. The veteran stage and film performer is refreshingly modest and good humored about his career and stresses that he would not have wished to become a bigger star if it meant that he had to work harder. While having performed in plays by esteemed French dramatists such as Jean Anouilh and André Roussin, Vattier notes that his supporting role as the comic foil Monsieur Brun in Pagnol’s trilogy gave him a public recognition that frequently alludes character performers.

However, the highlight of disc three is the rare 12-minute short Marseille (1935). Produced by Pagnol and directed by Jean Monti and Jean Margueritte, the film is a beautiful example of the documentaire romancé (documentary romance), a pre-World War II French subgenre of the documentary that synthesized fictional storytelling elements within the traditional narrative structure of the travelogue. Made when the sights and customs of Marseille from the prior century were fading away (an idea foregrounded by the climactic shot of a modern steamship dissolving into a well-worn sailing ship from the past), the film presents romanticized imagery of the port city, notably the multiple shots of hardworking fishermen, dancing lovers, and sweeping shots of the harbor, which is overlooked from above by the Notre-Dame de la Garde (a nineteenth-century Catholic basilica described in writer Arno-Charles Brun’s narration as the “patron saint of sailors”).

This evocative imagery in Marseille is accompanied by a pair of musical interludes featuring ballads by cabaret singers Mado Stelli, who subsequently appeared opposite Raimu and another of France’s top comedic stars, Fernandel in director Pierre Colombier’s boxing farce Les rois du sport (1937); and Tino Rossi, the Corsican-born crooner and popular star of such French films as Marinella (Pierre Caron, 1936), Destins (Richard Pottier, 1946), and Pagnol’s La belle meunière/The Pretty Miller Girl (1949, as Austrian composer Franz Schubert). The disc concludes with a 2½-minute segment covering the trilogy’s digital restoration, which, although not terribly informative, provides a brief glimpse into the effort to bring the visual and aural splendor of Pagnol’s masterpiece back to life.

The box set is handsomely packaged with elegant, gold-tinted artwork by the Italian-born cartoonist and illustrator Manuele Fior, whose award-winning 2009 graphic novel 5,000 Kilometers Per Second (published in English by Fantagraphics in 2016), like the Marseille Trilogy, also tells the heartbreaking tale of two young lovers, Piero and Lucia, separated and reunited after many years apart. The discs are accompanied by a 56-page booklet containing cast and credits; production and behind-the-scenes stills; a well-articulated essay by film critic Michael Atkinson; and excerpts from the preface that Pagnol penned for a 1964 collection of his stage and screenplays.

Admittedly, the box set’s hefty $99.95 price tag may give some interested parties pause, but, unlike other sets that frequently pair acknowledged classics with less marketable films to recoup the financial costs of the latter, each installment of Pagnol’s trilogy is of equal merit and needs to be viewed as a whole to fully appreciate its brilliance.

References

Bowles, Brett (2012), Marcel Pagnol, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Fior, Manuele (2009/2016), 5,000 Kilometers Per Second, Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Read also Christopher Weedman, “More Than Plays on Film: Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Marseille Trilogy’ Restored by Janus Films.”

Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor of Film and Pop Culture Studies in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University. His criticism and scholarship has appeared in Cinema Retro, Film International, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His article “A Dark Exilic Vision of Sixties Britain: Gothic Horror and Film Noir Pervading Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s The Servant” has been accepted for publication in Cinema Journal (forthcoming, 2019). He is currently writing a critical biography of British actress Anne Heywood, whose groundbreaking film performances in The Fox (Mark Rydell, 1967) and I Want What I Want (John Dexter, 1972) were among the first to sensitively explore such gender and sexual identity issues as bisexuality and transgenderism.

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