Film Review: Fanny

"Classic" is a word all too casually bandied about, but for Daniel Auteuil's screen adaptation of this beloved French trilogy it is completely apropos.

After the captivatingly glowing Marius, we now have Fanny, part two of Daniel Auteuil's trilogy based on the Marseilles-set plays of Marcel Pagnol. In this installment, the handsome young Marius (Raphaël Personnaz), son of the wise and loving café owner César (Auteuil), has gone off to sea to pursue his dream of being a sailor, leaving his fiancée Fanny (Victoire Bélézy) at home with, unbeknownst to him, his child in her belly. She is still mightily desired by the successful sail-maker Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and this heartbroken yet honest girl finally consents to marry him, defying her mother (Marie-Anne Chazel) when she informs him of her pregnancy.

Desperate to have a son to carry on the family name, Panisse happily agrees and everyone settles into comfy bourgeois bliss, until that seafaring fool, Marius, returns. Fanny has never stopped loving him, but her child is her foremost concern now, and her passion cannot outweigh the advantaged future her little boy will enjoy as the son of Panisse.

Starting with radiantly evocative shots of a ship's sails at sea which stand in for Marius, who is largely absent in this installment, Auteuil has happily retained the visual beauty, courtesy of the dreamy Marseille locale and Jean-François Robin's sun-kissed cinematography, as well as Alexandre Desplat's lovely music, which made Marius so memorable, and we happily give ourselves over to the further developments of Pagnol's saga. Material-wise, it's not as rich as Marius, which lovingly set everything up, but this only makes you look all the more forward to César, the culminating chapter of the trilogy, now being prepared. Suffice it to say that the rich, totally pleasing, atmospheric look of the film and strong, affectionate performances here remain highly satisfying and only strengthen my opinion that, of the three screen adaptations of the trilogy I have seen, this is by far the best.

The first version, directed in 1932 by Marc Allegret, with a screenplay by Pagnol himself, is, of course, an acknowledged classic with its iconic stars Raimu, Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis (Pagnol's real-life wife), but I find it a tad stodgy.  The 1961 Hollywood take from MGM suffers from Joshua Logan's heavy-handed direction, way too much noisy low comedy (oh, those French peasant types!), and a certain overfamiliarity with its big-name cast—Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron—which keeps the viewer from totally believing in them as simple folk in a French port town, rather than slumming stars.

Auteuil takes a warm, deeply human approach to the material, which even redeems a lot of the tiresome buffo humor transpiring between César, Panisse and their heavy-drinking gambling buddies. He and the majority of his cast are all pure, blissfully contented and adept character actors, and however many movies you may know them from, they all sink beautifully into their roles with believability and rare, essential innocence. Although Bélézy has little to do here except weep endlessly—but very prettily—for her lost love Marius, Auteuil has happily infused the film with some healthy shots of estrogen via the delightful scenes featuring Chazel and Ariane Ascaride as her aunt, two engaging old biddies concerned with propriety, of course, and scandalized by Fanny's indiscretion, yet clearly more obsessed with a secure financial future for the girl. Auteuil is as strong as ever as César and is marvelous in the movingly written scene where he justifies Panisse's right to Marius' baby boy. The strapping Personnaz accomplishes the highly difficult task of making the self-absorbed Marius quite appealing, something which his predecessors, Fresnay and the foxy Horst Buchholz, did not.

But the film really belongs to Darroussin, who gets his role of a lifetime as Panisse, and has moments which are quite touching—heartbreaking, really—making you completely understand the desires of a rich yet desperately lonely man, undeniably pompous yet willing to sacrifice everything for a future he never believed possible.

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