The 17th annual European Union Film Festival is at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s one of my favorite film events of the year, and I’ll give some quick capsule reviews on the films I manage to see throughout the fest.
When American studios and distributors remake foreign films into Americanized versions, it generally isn’t because they think the American versions will be much better. They simply feel that a more relatable, comfortable package of English-with-no-subtitles, American locations and recognizable acting faces will draw audiences here better than simply distributing the originals in wide U.S. release. As longtime readers know, I find it to be a real shame – unless those American filmmakers use the original film as a basis for their own singular take on the story and/or its larger ramifications (The Magnificent Seven, The Thing, The Fly, Scarface, The Departed, and countless laudable others), it’s just an insult to the intelligence of American audiences, and, in many cases, a waste of money. Having said that, let me provide you with an instructive counter-argument: Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), according to imdb.com, had American box office grosses of a little over $5 million. Its three-years-later American remake, John Badham’s Point Of No Return (1993), a film almost unanimously acknowledged as vastly inferior to the original, amassed a U.S. gross box office take of over $30 million. Video and DVD sales, I suspect, have corrected that imbalance over 20 years, but who can blame Point’s original producers for their opportunism?
Which brings us to today’s films, the Alain Sarde and Jérôme Seydoux produced, and Daniel Auteuil directed-and-written, remakes of Marcel Pagnol’s classically beloved Marseilles trilogy of films, Marius (France, 2013), Fanny (France, 2013) (shot together), and Cesar (now being shot for a release next year). As the titles suggest, Pagnol follows the fortunes of his three protagonists through some profoundly universal personal upheavals across all three films. The first, Marius, introduces us to the players: Cesar (Daniel Auteuil), a cranky but endearing tavern keeper who has raised his son to young adulthood as a widowed single parent; Marius (Raphaël Personnaz), the loyal son who assists him with the bar, who’s a pretty well-behaved young man considering the milieu of the Marseilles waterfront; Fanny (Victoire Bélézy), who helps her mother Honorine (Marie-Anne Chazel) sell fresh seafood at a small stand along the docks, and has been Marius’ ardent friend since childhood; and Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) a friend and contemporary of Cesar’s, also widowed, who boldly expresses his wish to remarry with the thirty-years-younger Fanny. No one wishes to ridicule their longtime friend Panisse (at least to his face), but it’s pretty clear that Fanny is all but promised to Marius, contingent on Marius making the decision to declare it. But Marius has been concealing another passion – wanderlust, and the call of the seas. He’s as aware as anyone that he must choose soon – a homelife with Fanny or the travelling life of a sailor. And at a crucial point in Marius, he chooses to refuse a commission on a five-year voyage on the Malaisie and devote himself to a marriage with Fanny. But Fanny knows that, despite their fierce mutual love for each other, Marius will always regret not having followed his true heart. In a heart-wrenching conclusion, Fanny tells Marius that maybe this Panisse thing isn’t such a bad deal after all for her, and keeps Cesar occupied as Marius, angrily unaware of the true sacrifice Fanny has made for him, races down the quay to board the Malaisie, and leave everything he’s ever known behind for the next five years.
Fanny starts almost immediately after Marius’ departure, but tells its story over a two-year span. Unsurprisingly, Marius seems to have left a bun in Fanny’s oven, and, after the usual flurry of rage, shame and recriminations from the various families, they resolve to arrange things as charitably and lovingly as possible for the sake of Fanny and the child. Fanny accepts the honorable Panisse’s proposal, and Panisse agrees to raise the child as his own (in fact, he’s thrilled at the chance to have an heir) and devote himself to their shared happiness. No one expects Marius to make a return until, of course… Marius makes a return; the Malaisie has mechanical problems, and is dry-docked in Australia until some of the ship’s French-made components can be repaired – in France. And Marius has come along with them. A quick visit with his father, and then with Fanny, brings him quickly up to speed on what has transpired since he left, and the last portions of the film concern Marius’ attempts to turn the hand of fate back in his favor, and to reclaim Fanny and the infant as rightfully his.
The last part of the trilogy, Cesar, reveals Fanny’s son as a young man, Cesariot Panisse, and his own attempts to reconcile his family’s complicated past with whatever life he will choose to make for himself.
I think Daniel Auteuil made choices for himself that he knew might come back and bite him. And I don’t think he cared. His adaptations are scrupulously faithful to Pagnol’s own vision, and, except for some paring of supporting role turns, he retains extraordinary chunks of Pagnol’s screenplays intact, unaltered. Made in the 1930s, the original trilogy retained a great deal of its theatrical origins (the first two were plays; Cesar was expressly written for the film); single-camera set-ups on what were pretty obviously sets - the camera frame as a proscenium. (Think of something like ‘The Honeymooners’ for a simple but comparable example.) Auteuil has taken full advantage of the technical advances available to him: a vastly wider variety of shots and camera movements, color, of course, and a great deal more exterior location work than was feasible then, and applied those advantages with intelligence and taste. But he hasn't done away with all of the ‘30s style and eccentricity; a few of the nighttime exteriors here still feel like in-studio sequences, and Auteuil peppers his film with these short visual reminiscences deliberately. I think many contemporary viewers who are familiar with the originals are going to see these remakes as more re-creation than illuminating update; museum pieces that add nothing to the originals.
But I think that goes back to my Point Of No Return example; the seemingly silly idea of Americanizing a much better film made only three years before nonetheless paid off handsomely for the unimaginative but dollar-savvy filmmakers who produced it. And who knows how many viewers of that film made a point to see the original afterwards, on video or DVD? In our present case, the films being remade are eighty years old, not particularly well-known or well-remembered outside of Europe, and yet their principal concepts in story, character and worldview still hold up today. Viewers who have no knowledge of the originals are going to watch some pretty impressive and affecting films here, and if it sends them back to the magnificent originals, then so much the better. There’s a fair amount of money to be made here by the filmmakers, but they still trusted the product to a non-veteran director whom they knew didn’t have ‘blockbuster’ on his mind when he sat down to envision it.
So, ultimately, I have no problem with these films, and recommend them unreservedly. Having said that, let me now pick at them a little. Personnaz and Bélézy acquit themselves well here; they’re very talented young actors, and we’re sure to see much more of them both. (A few may already remember Personnaz from Bertrand Tavernier’s 2010 film The Princess Of Montpensier; Bélézy has had some limited television experience, but she’s certainly comfortable here.) But I think it’s fair to say that Pagnol, in the original, saw all of his cast members as character roles, and saw to it that they were cast accordingly; a little more with Pierre Fresnay’s Marius, but most certainly with the uniquely compelling Orane Demazis’ Fanny (her being Pagnol’s wife notwithstanding). Auteuil’s treatment of these two roles puts them in a more conventional romantic-lead context, which was problematic for me. I couldn’t imagine these two characters not fending off numerous candidates for their attention and affections; as film characters, they’re both remarkably, almost distractingly, attractive, and I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. Auteuil’s own portrayal of Cesar was pleasantly different from the great French comic actor Raimu’s original; Auteuil keeps Cesar agreeably rough-edged, but doesn’t bring the theatrical music-hall flourish to the role that Raimu did. It’s a more naturalistic performance that still works exceedingly well. I think the greatest contrast is Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s Panisse, which is entirely different from Fernand Charpin’s; Charpin brought a fundamental comic flavor to Panisse that Darroussin seems to have eschewed altogether, bringing a more level earnestness. Charpin created a Panisse that made Fanny’s eventual endearment to him more credible; in the new version, Panisse simply becomes an agreeable, dutiful, but still much-less-than-ideal option for her. Whether that was Darroussin’s choice or Auteuil’s, I still found it troubling either way.
Despite those reservations, Auteuil has done fine work here, and his films are smart, beautiful and involving. They already have an American distributor, and it’ll be interesting to see how these films fare with today’s audiences. As I noted, if they do nothing much more than send a few thousand audience members back to the originals, that’d be a good outcome. But I think audiences will enjoy these remakes on their own, as stand-alone films, as well, and that’s the best outcome for all involved.
‘Marius' screens on Sunday, March 16th at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday the 19th at 6:00 p.m.
‘Fanny’ screens on Sunday, March 16th at 5:00 p.m. and Thursday the 20th at 6:00 p.m.