Marcel Pagnol: The People Person from Provence
What happened to Marcel Pagnol? The work of his peers are better known to cinephiles today; the versatile ensembles of Jean Renoir, the brooding, impressionistic work of Marcel Carné, and the airy comedies of René Clair endure. Of course, Pagnol is still a pantheon filmmaker in France, but with little repertory programming and only a few of his movies available on home video and streaming, viewers in North America simply don’t have access to this auteur’s work. Little by little, however, the situation is changing: After a theatrical run at Film Forum, Criterion released restorations of Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936) on Blu-ray. And now, this year, Film Forum programed a weeklong run of a shiny, new restoration of The Baker’s Wife (1938).
Perhaps another one of the reasons why the film community is slowly re-discovering and re-evaluating Pagnol is because he was a staunch classicist, which later directors (Claude Berri and Daniel Auteuil) observed but converted into bland, middlebrow adaptations. First a successful playwright, then a successful independent filmmaker, Pagnol prized performance and writing over editing and shot composition. Where Renoir, Carné, and Clair evolved and altered their styles, partly out of socio-economic necessities (Renoir and Clair eventually heeding the siren call of Hollywood) and partly out of curiosity, Pagnol remained set in his ways. He backed himself in a corner, which he was comfortable with. After Paramount successfully adapted Topaze (1933), Pagnol abandoned the stage for the silver screen, creating a studio in Marseilles, where he would write, produce, and direct his projects.
At the time, critics reacted tepidly to Pagnol’s ambling, chatty “filmed theatre” works set in the Provence. Audiences, on the other hand, liked his stories of simple rural people with simple problems, making Pagnol something of a populist filmmaker, who could draw box office numbers that rivaled Hollywood hits. With The Baker’s Wife, he directed a film that both critics and audiences alike embraced.
Adapted from a ten-page story written by Jean Giono (Pagnol repeatedly adapted this Provencal author’s work), The Baker’s Wife takes place in a village where the citizens squabble and spat with each other: the priest bickers with the school teacher about a lesson the latter delivered on Joan of Arc; a farmer yells at another about his trees casting a shadow on his crops. Amid the din, a new, middle-aged baker (Raimu) and his young, beautiful wife (Ginette Leclerc) set up shop. The town’s aflutter with the latest additions to the community. A small crowd visits the baker on opening day, including the marquis, who brings along his shepherd to haul his bread for him. The baker’s wife seduces the shepherd, and they leave town immediately. Once it finally dawns on the baker what has happened, he is such an emotional wreck that he can’t even do his job anymore. Realizing that they won’t get any more bread, the townsfolk put aside their personal quarrels and try to re-unite the baker and his wife.
In Pagnol’s cinema, talk is action. He fills scenes with dialogue, yet allowing sufficient pauses and breaks — breathing room — in between exchanges (the preferred setup for Pagnol) amongst characters. It’s a matter of rhythm, of finding the right flow of conversation for the characters, which is sustained for the film’s two-hour running time. Using relatively long takes, often favoring plan américain shots — Pagnol does all that he can to enhance both the words and the performers uttering them. And boy does he have performers. Pagnol regular, and fresh off the “Marseille Trilogy,” Raimu is a burly, bearish actor — a softer version of Michel Simon — who gives the baker a tragicomic depth. An aloof cuckold warmly delighting in the singing of his wife’s lover; a teetotaler getting drunk and showcasing a gamut of emotions, from grief’s thousand-yard stare to short-fuse rage, from stumbling tenderness to slurring sadness; and a hungover husk ready to hang himself — Raimu’s full-bodied performance fleshes out the baker, fully anchoring the supporting characters, and the film itself, to him. Pagnol underlines Ramiu’s pathos by having him wear a tight-fitting suit, a bowler hat, and a stubby mustache — he resembles a waterlogged Chaplin.
Pagnol’s films are known for their writing and performances, just as Hitchcock’s their editing, Ophuls’ their traveling shots. Be that as it may, as Janus Films and other companies begin to bring his films out of the archives and release them in spiffy new 4K restorations, it’s time to give Pagnol’s compositions a second look. His films are not stiff, are not canned theatre in which the camera simply rolls on as the actors perform. No, there’s a subtlety to his work, manifesting as slight yet potent camera angles and gentle push ins and pans that render scenes all the more effective. In The Baker’s Wife, Pagnol will return to a shot taken from within the oven, looking out at the baker, the baker and his wife, or the villagers. Consider the way that the villagers first come into contact with the wife: Pagnol places the camera behind Leclerc, who is standing behind the counter, and the townsfolk come in single file, sneaking glances at her before moving on to be shown the oven by the baker. Effectively, this is a POV shot that doesn’t emphasize the wife as a three-dimensional character (as per the script, she speaks only 144 words of dialogue) but as an icon — a sultry trophy wife that the townsfolk seem to size up immediately. Pagnol’s aesthetic consists of simple choices with big pay offs. His DNA can be found in later generations of filmmakers — from Maurice Pialat and Éric Rohmer to Hong Sang-soo. As more and more of his films eventually become available, it’s time to re-consider Pagnol as more than just a French cultural icon and a member of the Acádemie française. There’s more to Pagnol’s movies than talk; there’s cinema.