Film Review: Marius

Utterly delightful, almost uncanny in its perfect period confidence and brio, this is a reminder once more of why we love French films.

Marcel Pagnol's well-known Marseilles-set trilogy—Marius, Fanny and César—has been enduringly popular, from the stage and Alexander Korda's famous, rather stodgy 1930s film version starring the legendary Raimu, to even a fetching Broadway musical, Fanny, with a book by S.N. Behrman and music by Harold Rome in 1954. One would think yet another take on this material would be superfluous, but how glad I am that Daniel Auteuil, following his affecting triumph with Pagnol's The Well-Digger's Daughter has decided to tackle it. Beautifully produced, a joy to look at and listen to, Marius, Auteuil's first installment is, I think, the best version yet of this material, a fine salute to French classicism and all those sturdy, excellent directors like Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carne, René Clair, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Claude Autant-Lara and Marc Allegret, real storytellers whom the French New Wave, headed by François Truffaut, derided as old-fashioned (aka "cinema du papa").

Marius is literally "du papa," as it focuses on the relationship between César (Auteuil), a café owner, and his son Marius (Raphaël Personnaz). Marius has known and loved the pretty fish-seller Fanny (Victoire Bélézy) since childhood, and she him, but the call of the sea beyond Marseilles keeps him from committing himself in marriage to her. Meanwhile, Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), old enough to be her father, woos her, and the money and position he can offer sway her, which forces the romantic hand of a suddenly jealous Marius.

It's a slight tale, but Pagnol filled it with the bracingly warm and deeply human local color of the sea-dependent townsfolk, a bustling, querulous and quarrelsome community. And here, with the aid of a perfect cast, Auteuil creates a work of quietly explosive charm. The salty ambiance of Marseilles is sublimely captured, with Jean-François Robin's cinematography training an intense, beauty-seeking eye on the sparkling water, dazzling sunlight and shimmeringly sensual nights of this port burg. Christian Marti's period set design is flawless (you simply want to live in those sets). Alexandre Desplat's exquisite, trumpet-inflected music possesses its own potency as you are once more pulled into the familiar tale, happily succumbing to the lovely period escape it affords. Charles Trenet’s seductive standard "La Mer" is also heard, a perfect choice, exuding its own siren call of the sea.

The committed sincerity of Auteuil's actors cannot be underestimated. Folksiness, even when French, can be a huge pain in the ass when you sense that the characters are being too busily acted. The cast here scores their emphatic histrionic points, but underlining everything is a deep authenticity and rare, but vitally necessary, innocence which makes their antics—which can so easily seem patented—sparklingly fresh. Auteuil has honed the paternalistic authority he evinced in The Well-Digger's Daughter to a literal fine point. He has some delicious encounters with Honorine (Marie-Anne Chazel, amusingly frenetic), Fanny's busybody of a mother, and the scene in which he finally expresses true affection for Marius—his hapless boy who can't even correctly mix an aperitif—will give you a lump in your throat, so affecting is Auteuil's hesitant, blinking display of a father's love. Darroussin makes a perfect, humorless Panisse, and he and Auteuil even render that tiresome card scene a genial comic gem.

Personnaz has a radiant handsomeness and real fire in his eyes when he thinks of going to sea, and the matchingly dark Bélézy makes a fit, super-attractive mate for him. Her Fanny has a strong presence, which makes her utter breakdown, when things with Marius go awry, all the more moving. She even faints from the stress of it at one point, and when was the last time any screen heroine tried that? (As gracefully calibrated in emotional truth by Bélézy, it's not corny in the least.) It all has you fairly panting for the next installment, Fanny, which is bound to be as thoroughly lovely.

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