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Nick Pinkerton on Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy

Marcel Pagnol, César, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 141 minutes. Marius Ollivier and Fanny (Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis).

MARCEL PAGNOL’S MARSEILLES TRILOGYMarius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936)—is one of the most beloved works of early French sound cinema, though it might be more accurate to call its true country of origin Provence. A region as distinct as Scotland is to Britain, Bavaria to Germany, Texas to the United States, the peculiarity of Provence has led some to question if it belongs to France at all; in J.K. Huysmans’s 1891 novel Là-bas, a Parisian character opines that “the coronation of a Valois at Rheims created a heterogeneous and preposterous France . . . uniting the most incompatible nationalities” before launching into a tirade against those “stained-skinned, varnished-eyed munchers of chocolate and raveners of garlic . . . [the] histrionic, forensic, perfidious chatterboxes, the precious Latin race.”

Pagnol was a patriotic Provençal, the grandfather of regionalist filmmaking, and his Marseillaise—histrionic chatterboxes, to be sure—are no more trusting of the northerners in their midst than Huysmans’s speaker is of the Latins; one recurring bit player in the trilogy, Brun (Robert Vattier), is subjected to endless abuse for reason of his being from Lyon, even though by the third film he must have been living in Provence for at least a couple of decades. Pinched, squint-eyed Brun is one of the characters who congregates at the Bar de la Marine, a café facing the port of Marseilles owned and operated by César Olivier (Raimu) and his twenty-year-old son Marius (Pierre Fresnay), who dreams of rigging and the open seas as he wipes down glasses, while Fanny (Orane Demazis), a young girl selling cockles at a nearby stall, dreams of Marius.

The trilogy will be playing at Film Forum for eleven days beginning today, the DCP restorations by Janus Films undoubtedly preceding a forthcoming home-video release from the Criterion Collection. The first film, financed by the French branch of Paramount Pictures and directed by Alexander Korda, details the shy, touchy father-son relationship of César and Marius, the consummation of the unspoken longing between Marius and Fanny, and Marius’s final escape on an oceanographic vessel. The second, directed by Marc Allégret, picks up immediately where Marius (and Marius) left off, with Fanny fainting dead away as her lover’s ship leaves port, soon to discover that she is pregnant with Marius’s child, for whose sake she accepts the proposal of Honoré Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a wealthy, big-bellied widower nearing fifty. Pagnol, who wrote the whole bunch, directed the final installment himself—it picks up some fifteen years later, when Césariot (André Fouché), Fanny’s grown son, discovers that the man who has raised him is not his blood father and sets out to find the banished and bitter Marius.

The above covers the essential narrative elements of a trilogy that fills just over seven hours of screen time, and if this seems scant freight for such a vast hold it’s because Pagnol––whose signature combination of southern lassitude and unabashed melodrama suffuses all three films, regardless of his having directed only one––is less interested in efficiently getting from plot point to plot point than in meandering along, lingering to observe peculiarities of Provençal behavior and watching a community of friends as they move through their well-worked grooves: picking on the neighborhood cuckold, engaging in barstool philosophy, bickering over a game of cards, observing the medicinal benefits of the aperitif or the outcome of a match of pétanque. Fernandel, a fellow Marseillaise who worked with Pagnol time and again, famously described the director’s laid-back method thusly: “With Marcel Pagnol, making a film is first of all going to Marseille, then eating some bouillabaisse with a friend, talking about the rain or the beautiful weather, and finally, if there is a spare moment, shooting.”

Alexander Korda, Marius, 1931, 35 mm, black-and-white-, sound, 127 minutes. Piquoiseau, Fanny, and Marius (Alexandre Mihalesco, Orane Demazis, and Pierre Fresnay).

Much of the pleasure of the trilogy comes through Pagnol’s attention to the vernacular of his native land—not just the salty, epigrammatic humor but the semaphore-like language of gesture that accompanies and massages the cadence of speech, snapping at crescendos with a conductor’s flourish. Pagnol cultivated his own stock company, many of them, such as Raimu or Charpin, plucked from the music halls of the south, and each performer gives their character a distinct personal lexicon—Panisse, the salesman, moves his hands in a soft, caressing, wheedling motion, while César shifts between a languid fists-in-pockets shrug and flurries of chopping and stabbing. It is most moving to see in the final film how Marius has inherited his father’s gestural vocabulary, though he has for his own the crooked, boyish grin which, when he reappears in César, has frozen into a grimace. Most of Pagnol’s Marseillaise appear somewhat comic, especially when in fits of pique and paroxysms of fury, but it is Demazis’s Fanny alone who experiences the full weight of the tragedy she’s experiencing—a woman trying to make the savor of one moment of youthful passion last the whole of a lifetime, her sloe-eyed, sharp-featured face hugely compelling in a few scant close-ups.

Marius, which originated as a 1929 stage smash, was among the earliest talking pictures to be made in France, but it turned the relatively immobility of the then-young sound film into an advantage—indeed, into something like an ethos. Among other things, the Marseillaise trilogy is a progenitor of the “just hanging around and shooting the shit” genre, which extends through Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969), Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1972), and through the highly disparate filmographies of Jim Jarmusch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Kevin Smith. Romantic tragedy is the trilogy’s raw heart, but Pagnol follows scenes played at a hysterical emotional pitch with light comic palaver. As Panisse receives his last rites in his bedchamber, César sits downstairs in his friend’s parlor talking through a disturbing idea—what if the God that Panisse is preparing to meet isn’t that of the parish priest but one of the “red, black, or yellow God[s]” worshipped by the polyglot races that routinely pass through the port? This isn’t spoon-fed tolerance but an instance of the humble sophistication that runs through the trilogy, which offers up an abundance of disparate, clashing motives and a total absence of villains.

Marseilles, as Pagnol presents it, is a city at once cosmopolitan—as a bustling port town, it somehow seems closer to Sydney or Macau than to Paris or Lyon—and parochial in the extreme. The Marseillaise of the trilogy all draw on a shared personal history: César and Panisse, in many ways opposite numbers, are revealed in Fanny to have a competitive relationship that stretches back to their days in short pants, while the threat of family disgrace hanging over Fanny is exacerbated by the collective communal memory of an infamous Aunt Zoé. Pagnol keeps us always in mind of this sense of familiarity that stretches back generations, showing us people nursing decades of grudges, as well as maintaining enormous stocks of tenderness toward one another.

Not least because of his physical and spiritual distance from the capital and the center of the French film industry, Pagnol’s influence on future generations of French filmmakers is incalculable. After the success of his first cinematic efforts, he founded his own production house in Marseilles, and this independence would provide an example for the likes of, say, Jean-Pierre Melville, who in 1947 built his own Studio Jenner in the thirteenth arrondissement. His stature was still greater for those operating outside of Paris. For Eustache—another southerner, raised between greater Bordeaux and the Mediterranean port of Narbonne—the artisanal model provided by Pagnol was the thing to aspire to. Jacques Demy, a die-hard regionalist whose films returned repeatedly to the northwestern seaside scenes of his youth in Nantes, lifted much from the Marseilles trilogy for his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which in turn influenced Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016)—a film whose luxe wistfulness seems even flimsier next to the buffeting emotional savagery of the homecoming scenes in César.

A proselytizer for “filmed theater” when “pure cinema” was to become the religion of the day, Pagnol has since fallen in and out of fashion, a situation he seems to anticipate with an epigraph for the poet Sully Prudhomme that he places in Brun’s mouth: “A great writer and poet who is taken for a fool these days.” As director of César, Pagnol has less professional polish than either Korda or Allégret, prone to rather jarring shot-reverse-shot setups, overhead shots, and wobbly framings, but the film represents a triumph of intuition and emotion over technique. Above all, to paraphrase Virgil, Pagnol brought the cinematic muse to his country—and that’s no mean feat.

Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy runs January 4 through 12 at Film Forum in New York.