Film Review: The Well Digger's Daughter

Romantic period gem firmly set in writer Marcel Pagnol’s aromatic Provence marks the stunning directorial debut of vet actor Daniel Auteuil, who does prodigious double duty as the widowed well-digger with six daughters and one big problem.

This lushly bucolic Marcel Pagnol tale is the perfect fit for actor/filmmaker Daniel Auteuil as, having starred decades ago in Columbia/Triumph’s two Pagnol classics Jean de Florette and Manon des sources, he knows the writer’s territory and has captured his well-digger’s accent and mannerisms like a true Provençal. Also a perfect fit for the art-house crowd, The Well Digger’s Daughter amounts to a breathtaking bouquet of gorgeous locations, touching performances, striking production design, and a well-told story.

It all begins just before the Great War, when the working-class well-digger’s daughter Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the handsome young pilot son of prominent bourgeois tool-shop owner Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) meet sweet when Jacques helps the 18-year-old girl cross a stream. The chemistry is instant but the class divide is evident. Patricia is the oldest of well-digger Pascale’s (Auteuil) six daughters left him by his late wife, so Pascale’s focus is to marry her off. The likely candidate is the humble, middle-aged Felipe (Kad Merad), his loyal employee who has long had his eye on Patricia.

But on a first date with Felipe at the local air show, Patricia runs into pilot Jacques and, discreetly deserting Felipe, goes off with the aviator. She initially rejects his advances but eventually gives in. They make a date for a country rendezvous, but quite suddenly Jacques is called to the war. He gives his mother (Sabine Azema) a letter to deliver to Patricia explaining his call-up to service, but, protective of her class status and her son, she does not deliver it.

With Jacques gone, life goes on its bumpy way. Felipe, understanding he is rejected, takes up with another daughter. Word inauspiciously arrives that Jacques is missing in action, then declared dead just as Patricia learns she is pregnant with his child. Much drama follows: The Mazels, suspecting Pascale is a fortune-hunter, will not recognize the child, and the tradition-bound well-digger banishes his daughter to her aunt’s remote location where she gives birth. But reversals come flying, so that even those familiar with Pagnol’s frequent themes and plot points will get ample surprises and satisfaction in this remake of the 1940 French screen adaptation.

Auteuil’s major triumph is to endow this sensual color burst of loss, love, acceptance and redemption with so much authenticity and charm. The Provençal locales (the sweeping fields of flowers and grasses, the canopied country roads) provide rich eye candy and the sounds of nature nicely complement Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score. But it’s the film’s characters who touch the heart and remind of our common humanity.