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Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy

by Glenn Erickson Jun 16, 2017

DVD SAVANT

No longer out of reach, Marcel Pagnol’s stunning 3-feature saga of love and honor in a French seaport is one of the great movie experiences — and the most emotional workout this viewer has seen in years. The tradition of greatness in the French sound cinema began with gems like these, starring legendary actors that were sometimes billed only with their last names: Raimu, Charpin. Those two, Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis are simply unforgettable — it’s 6.5 hours of dramatic wonderment.


Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy
Marius * Fanny * César
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 881-884
1931 – 1936 / B&W / 1:19 flat full frame, 1:19 flat full frame, 1:37 flat full frame / 127 * 127 * 141 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 20, 2017 / 79.96
Starring: Raimu, Pierre Fresnay, Orane Demazis, Fernand Charpin, Alida Rouffe, Paul Dullac, Robert Vattier, André Fouché.
Cinematography: Ted Pahle, Nicolas Toporkoff, Willy Faktorovitch
Original Music: ?, Vincent Scotto, Vincent Scotto
Written by Marcel Pagnol
Produced by Ted Pahle, Roger Richeb&eacute, Marcel Pagnol
Directed by
Alexander Korda, Marc Allégret, Marcel Pagnol

 

Film school gave us a wonderful introduction to foreign cinema, although one often limited to big-name directors. The only real presence outside Europe was Akira Kurosawa. The standard classics were also the ones shown in repertory houses or at the Museum. I remember only occasionally seeing more exotic fare, such as Mother Joan of the Angels, The Shop on Main Street and Forbidden Games. A rare print of Peeping Tom was squirreled away in the UCLA Film Archive. I assume that it was the property of a private collector, and we only saw it when a projectionist volunteered to give a hush-hush screening in a small room upstairs. While we dug into American pictures, I never saw classic-era French films. Francophile friend Bob Hoover had lived in France, where he became a fan of Sacha Guitry and someone named Marcel Pagnol. I’d heard about the Marseille Trilogy but had only seen the Warners’ remake Fanny (1960), a picture that was pretty and little else. In the 1990s I had access to a VHS copy of one of the films, Marius, but the quality was terrible.

 

Europeans have been making impressive progress restoring their film treasures. Compelling evidence of that now surfaces with Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy in a new and frankly stunning 2015 restoration. The first two films are adaptations of stage originals, directed by the big names Alexander Korda and Marc Allégret; the third is a screen original directed by Pagnol himself. Having just seen them for the first time I admit to feeling unqualified to do much more than praise what I saw, while making sure not to spoil the experience for other viewers. The first film seemed slow at times, but builds to a powerful finish. The second and third movies are gripping from one end to the other. Yes, these are filmed plays, but they’re staged on the real Marseille waterfront and acted so warmly that I found myself having strong emotional reactions to every new scene. I know that a film is working when I think, ‘people I care about need to see this.’

Going in, the only actor I knew well was Pierre Fresnay, from The Grand Illusion and some other films. Now that I’ve seen the show, I have four more favorite performers to look out for.

If I just limit myself to setting up the characters, the story won’t be spoiled. Rough, quarrelsome widower César Ollivier (Raimu) runs Marseille’s Bar de la Marine, a modest saloon frequented by a group of happy chums — ferry captain Escartefigue (Paul Dullac), Lyon transplant Aldebert Brun (Robert Vattier), Doctor Venelle (Édouard Delmont) and Honoré Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a well-to-do sail maker with a shop a few doors away. Also a widower, Panisse has no children to inherit his riches. César raised his 20-year-old son Marius (Pierre Fresnay) on his own. The trouble is with Marius, whose affections are split between his childhood sweetheart Fanny Cabanis (Orane Demazis) and a longing to go to sea on a grand sailing ship. Fanny is heartsick over Marius’ confusion, especially when her mother Honorine (Alida Rouffe) encourages her to accept the marriage proposal of Panisse, who is thirty years older than she. Fanny is too virtuous to trick Marius into a marriage, but then a situation arises that forces her to make painful decisions. No matter how she chooses, she cannot help but cause lifelong pain to those she loves.

 

At first Marius seems slow, as the play takes its time setting up the pace of dockside life, where most people work hard and most are poor. It takes a while to realize that the characters are not music hall clowns, but richly conceived people, each with a problem. All want respect and a chance for happiness and all have difficulty seeing past their immediate personal problems. When the film’s big issues hit them, they’re each tested in a different way. What is family duty and family honor and how much suffering should one have to bear to maintain it? To what degree do we have the right to hide the truth from our children? How do we sort out our selfish desires from doing The Right Thing? Marcel Pagnol generates a positive statement about the human condition, in that the constant conflict between these good people builds understanding. Although each suffers, enough love is generated to dissolve years of bitterness. The events stack one highly emotional problem on another, but we find ourselves believing in everything we see.

How many film actors have we been told are ‘the world’s greatest?’ (Jules) Raimu is certainly up there. He cemented his fame on stage and in the three movies as César, the saloon keeper with a big mouth and a heart of gold. At first we think that Fernand Charpin’s Panisse is a silly fool, trying to marry a girl who could almost be his granddaughter. But Panisse turns out to be an entirely decent and sympathetic man as well, one who refuses to take advantage of an amorously advantageous situation. The Trilogy covers only about twenty years or so, but we feel that we’re watching a multi-generational story. The first and last films were made only five years apart, yet the characters seem to have properly aged.

The ‘adult’ generation contains a number of survivors from the trenches of WW1, and at one point Panisse laughs off his problems by remembering the hell of Verdun. Although WW2 is in the unknown future, we wonder what will happen to the next generation. We feel so close to the film’s characters, we regret not being able to know their fates beyond the framework of the Trilogy.

 

Orane Demazis’ Fanny has the looks of an ignorant waif, but soon surprises us with her depth of feeling and instinctual values. We soon understand why she’s the dream girl of the docks, and by the end of the first picture she indeed seems a great beauty. Very often the notion of ‘doing the best for one’s children’ is an excuse to victimize others. Likewise Pierre Fresnay’s Marius is blinded by his daydreams of a life on the ocean, and like the other men (except for Panisse) is prone to overlook the feelings of others. The Trilogy is long enough to place a great many dramatic crises in a larger context. People say that they don’t care about ‘the rules’ but almost always take paths that conform to what society demands, for their own personal peace of mind.

Raimu and Charpin are so good, that I can’t even think of American actors for comparison. The ensemble cast seems immediately familiar. The newest film in the trilogy is now 81 years old, but we feel as close to the characters as people we know. So few modern pictures even attempt character depth like this . . .

If the stories had been cut down to normal feature dimensions, some of the best material would have to go. Many of the film’s scenes sneak us into debates about various issues. At their card games the dockside buddies talk about honesty, duty, and pride. A bedside confession expands into a discussion of sin. Marius tries to describe his obsession to see the world in such a way that Fanny realizes that it’s a dream too big to compete against – what good is catching a man against his will, if he spends the rest of his life in resentment? The quality of Pagnol’s writing can’t be overstated, as what in other films might come across as lame character exposition or ‘author’s messaging,’ here emerges as brilliant insight into human nature. Some of these discussion scenes go on for minutes. The entire last half-hour of Fanny felt like one crucial dialogue scene between the main actors, hashing out the pros and cons of a conflict that will change all of their lives.

 

I wouldn’t call the Trilogy primitive cinema, even though it is not overly concerned with progressive cinematic effects. Human faces and moving drama beat fancy camera tricks every time. The location shooting is vivid but limited – in the first film, César’s saloon interior doesn’t quite fit with the exterior filmed right on the Marseille waterline. Alexander Korda and Marc Allégret’s films play smoothly, nicely disguising the fact that 70% of the footage consists of close-quarters dialogue scenes. Pagnol personally took over the direction of the final show. He does just as well with his dramatic material, but snooty film students will roll their eyes at his constant odd angles. We’ve seen enough great scenes that violate the 180-degree rule, to want to throw said rule out the window. . . but some of Pagnol’s scenes have wince-inducing flip-flop cuts that show why the rule was invented in the first place. Still, when the drama is so strong, such details barely matter.

Forty years ago we thought all movies from the early 1930s had ‘iffy’ audio. The restoration of course helps, but the direct dialogue recording and mixing was clearly strong in all of these pictures. The one near-blooper gaffe is in the newest (1936) picture, when a woman shouting in the close foreground, was recorded by a microphone obviously 100 feet away. Otherwise, the technical achievement is tops. In some situations, especially the last film César, it looks as if multiple cameras were used to record dialogue scenes without breaking up the flow. But the drama of the last part of Fanny is so absorbing, I barely noticed whether the camera moved or cut. The trilogy didn’t feel like a filmed play, but a powerful life experience.

To Bob Hoover, wherever you are.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy is presented in a restoration so impressive that we can only hope that more great films keep appearing so regularly — if viewers knew what riches were to be found outside of franchise blockbusters, they’d be as excited as us foreign film addicts. The encodings of the three features show little damage beyond occasional missing frames and a jump cut or two. Light scratches appear but the overall clarity and stability of the image keep us from worrying about the quality. Early in the first show there was one shot seemingly filled in from an inferior source, and that was it. The audio is in even better shape. The restoration demo featurette discusses that work that had to be done, but it’s great that such good elements were kept safe all this time.

Criterion again loads the show with excellent prime source extras, and expert commentary and analysis. Still recovering from the viewing experience, I’m not sure I properly took in the featurettes I sampled. The interviews with three of the actors remind us of just how long ago these shows were produced, in the golden-era respite between the wars. Orane Demazis mostly conveys that her Fanny had such an impact that it stereotyped her for future work. Robert Vattier, who has a featured supporting role, charmingly expresses his satisfaction with being a non-star who got to work opposite the best. Criterion has licensed TV documentaries on the film and Marcel Pagnol that otherwise would be difficult to see, and authoritative commentary is offered in featurettes and essays by Bertrand Tavernier, Brett Bowles and Michael Atkinson. Also welcome is a short subject by Pagnol on Marseille itself, which ties in nicely with the Trilogy’s setting. For most of us casual filmgoers, Marseille is a place seen in the French Connection movies. Here we learn that the city has its own accent and mannerisms — the screenplay mines a great deal of humor from the locals criticizing outsiders, like Robert Vattier’s man from Lyon.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy Blu-ray
rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Very good – excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New introduction by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier; New interview with Nicolas Pagnol, grandson of writer-director Marcel Pagnol; Segments from Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux choisis, a 1973 documentary series on Pagnol’s life and work; Marseille, a short 1935 documentary about the Marseille harbor produced by Pagnol; Archival interviews with actors Orane Demazis, Pierre Fresnay, and Robert Vattier, Pagnol’s Poetic Realism, a new video essay by scholar Brett Bowles; Restoration short subject, reissue trailer. Booklet (56 pages) with an essay by Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol’s introductions to his plays and screenplays.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three card and plastic disc holders with book in heavy card sleeve-box
Reviewed: June 14, 2017
(5445pagn)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.