Jean de Florette

(France - 1986)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Elisabeth Depardieu
Genre: Drama
Director: Claude Berri
Screenplay: Claude Berri, Gérard Brach, based on the novel by Marcel Pagnol
Cinematography: Bruno Nuytten
Composer: Jean Claude Petit
Runtime: 122 minutes

Jean de Florette is possibly the cruelest non-violent movie you'll find. The film deals with the dark side of human nature; the side that puts me first no matter the consequences.

Jean is a hunchback that has made a good living in the city all his life, but decided to move his family to the country when he inherits the property of his late mother. Gerard Depardieu plays him brilliantly as a man of great joy and vigor. He's clumsy and overly reliant on the knowledge and will of others, but not being cynical is hardly a sin. He's a simply, hardworking man, the kind you like to root for, that is so determined to be successful that he'll go to any extent within the law to do so.

The good people of the country that Jean has faith in would help him if they knew who he really was, the son of Florette, but the Soubeyran's do everything in their power to make it impossible for Jean to succeed. Unfortunately, Jean doesn't have the slightest idea that the guys who plugged his stream aren't his friends, and instead are laughing their asses off behind his back as he makes mistake after mistake.

Cesar Soubeyran a.k.a. Le Papet (Yves Montand) is the brains behind the operation and Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) is the muscle. They want to buy Jean's farm in the worst way so Ugolin can use it to grow carnations. Jean isn't interested in selling, so they do everything possible to destroy him and not just get it, but get it dirt cheap. The thing is, Ugolin is Jean's only "friend" and he regularly "helps Jean out." Sometimes he really does, but it's always with his own benefit in mind.

What makes the movie so powerful is that Papet and Ugolin are the focus, and they are not villains in the one-dimensional representation of evil sense. They are not heartless, just human. They are kind of nice guys, and we could like them if they didn't always put themselves first. The film argues that we too act to the detriment of others because it's not the person that's bad, it's their very nature.

Jean, as played by Depardieu, isn't the kind of character you can dislike. You can think he's a fool, but he's so good hearted and driven to succeed that you don't want him to fail. Ugolin isn't lying when he says he's become Jean's friend. He really likes the guy. The film criticizes the hollowness of these selfish friendships. Ugolin is so delusional that he believes he's Jean's friend even as he goes through killing him bit by bit. I don't want to make it sounds like Ugolin doesn't know what he's doing though, it's cruel and calculated (mainly by Papet since Ugolin isn't the brightest) series of maneuvers. They often feel sorry for Jean and his family, who as time goes on spend their day lugging as much water as they possibly can from a neighboring well so their vegetables won't die, and consider truly helping him. However, they realize that you can't let the opponent off the hook once you have him on the ropes. We can relate to their feeling that each wrong they've done makes it harder and harder to correct the problem, and it in a way makes more sense to ignore your conscious and just keep doing wrong until the end. We can relate to it because there is so much truth to what author Marcel Pagnol wrote about human nature.

This movie is not about suspense. We are pretty sure we know how it will end early on. That's not to the detriment of the film, it's the point of it. It's a brutal look at just how far man will go. To me, it's not so much criticizing the relentlessness of man as saying that human nature is to try to see things through, so the best avoidance is not going down the wrong path to begin with. It is, of course, criticizing greed and excess. That's why it's important for the Soubeyran's to be rich. If they had absolutely nothing and Ugolin was looking for a bit of land for his flowers it might be one thing, but Papet could give Ugolin a portion of his land to garden if he wanted to.

The film doesn't let the poor man off the hook though. The slobs of the town, even though mislead, are very much responsible for Jean's downfall because they turn their head to the Soubeyran's wrongdoing and make the Cadoret's seem as unwelcome as possible. One memorable portion of the film involves the selling of Aimee Cadoret's (Elisabeth Depardieu) prized necklace. Early on Aimee says they could get 10,000 francs for it, but Jean says he would rather go barefoot than sell it. Later, when they need that money most, Jean finds out that Aimee already sold it for a mere 100 francs because the jewels weren't real. Were they really fake or was she conned by a greedy shop owner? We never find out, but given the rest of the material, I'm willing to say it was the later. Am I being realistic or merely subscribing to the cynicism that's presented throughout?

The film is very patient. Claude Berri's directorial style here is to vanish. That's not a criticism, the film is strong in every regard, but what it does is pull us into the story. I prefer the highly stylized productions, but given the setting and material they would not be an improvement. Berri has the camera stay back, giving us a lot of lush scenery and vibrant color instead of forcing emotion on us. The story is deliberately slow moving with the idea, from both sides, that Rome wasn't built in a day. Jean is always thinking of the next way he can improve his farm. Meanwhile, the saboteurs are patiently waiting for him to fail, of course "helping his cause" every chance they get.

The performances make a huge difference. You feel what all the characters are feeling. Montand was so real and memorable in this role that people started calling him Papet. The scarier thing is that Auteuil, who has the harder role because much moreso than Montand he has to be both friend and foe, is probably the better of the two.

The classic scene of the movie is when the Cadoret family, at the height of a backbreaking drought, is awoken by thunder. They run out joyously to be rained on, with Jean talking about how his well will soon be full, only to have it rain only on the other side of the mountain. Depardieu shouts at the heavens. First they've given him a hump, and now they've forgot about him in his time of greatest need. How can the gods be so cruel? Too bad he doesn't know he should be shouting at them for sticking him with such cold-blooded neighbors. In a way he's right though. If you believe in that kind of thing, it's the fault of whoever you believe made us inherently self-centered.

The ending of this film is so perfectly diabolical. It lacks any and all respect and compassion. What's important about ending the film here is that it sets the second half (not a sequel), the superior Manon Des Sources, up as the starting point of the tables turning. The two painful films show humanity at its lowest point, but the scary thing is the main characters only realize they are at their lowest in one of the two. The power and gravity of the two tales are so immense. Each can be understood and totally appreciated on their own, but when you put the two together it's weight makes the canisters of water Jean almost killed himself by constantly hauling through the mountains seem like a feather.

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