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The Well-Digger’s Daughter (La fille du puisatier) – Daniel Auteuil.


Astrid Bergès-Frisbey



The Well-Digger’s Daughter – Daniel Auteuil

Lyrical, romantic, with a lightness of touch quintessentially French, this is a delightful study in Provencal rural manners over a single summer just as WWII is about to break out. A time of innocence and old verities, a simple tale of love, honour and respect is beautifully played out by a very strong cast; hauntingly assisted by an original score from Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech) and lovingly photographed by Jean-Francois Robin (Nelly et M.Arnaud). The seamless blend of music and the beauty of the slumbering Provencal countryside as a setting for a tender romantic tale carries echoes of another pastoral idyll: Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan (1967).

In his directorial debut Auteuil also plays Pascal Amoretti, the well-digger of the title and widowed father of 6 girls. A man of honest labour and honourable belief, Amoretti dotes on his ‘princess’, 18 year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Amoretti’s likeable but dull assistant Félipe cherishes a doomed love for the beautiful Patricia who has fallen for dashing pilot Jacques Mazel, son of the rich local storekeeper.

The pure, naïve Patricia is totally inexperienced in the ways of men and succumbs to Jacques’ more practiced worldly charms. We wonder whether the honest, open truthfulness of Patricia’s love is returned or merely exploited by the dashing Jacques. They arrange to meet but the night before, he is unexpectedly called to the front and the letter of explanation he gives to his jealously over-protective mother to deliver on his behalf, she burns instead.

When Patricia has to confess to her father that she is pregnant his sense of social propriety and personal honour leads him first to tackle Jacques’ parents but when they reject any involvement, Amoretti feels bound by social convention to send her to his sister to start a new life free of the social opprobrium attaching to her sinful behaviour. When the generous-hearted.

Félipe offers to marry Patricia, Amoretti tells him he has no sense of honour; to which Félipe replies perhaps not, but he has love, and that is more important.

Patricia is banished to live with her aunt and Amoretti affects to have disowned her. But his disavowal lacks conviction. When he later discovers that he has a grandson bearing his name as was the convention in France when no birth father’s name was known, he weakens and goes to see him.

The Mazel’s are devasted to hear that Jacques has been shot down in flames over enemy lines and is presumed dead; which the military later confirm. Patricia returns to live with the now doting and protective grandfather Amoretti. An unexpected turn of events eventually leads to a happy reconciliation between the families and the marriage of Félipe to Patricia’s older sister Amanda who always secretly loved him.

Auteuil’s deep affection for a now long-gone sense of moral clarity rooted in a deep attachment to place and a simple notion of personal honour that is unconnected with social position is almost tangible throughout. Disappointed but not surprised by M. Mazel’s initial rejection of Patricia, Amoretti tellingly remarks: “I should have known better than to trust a man who sells tools but never uses them.”

Robin’s cinematography and Auteuil’s unfussy direction evoke the summer delights of Provencal: carried along by Desplat’s evocative score one can almost taste the wine; luxuriate in the unhurried reticent innocence of lives lived with a deep sense of belonging and what French philosopher Simone Weil, contemporary to the time, called ‘rootedness’ which she went on to describe as a “need of the soul”.

The performances are uniformly good, with Auteuil’s often urbane persona comfortably lost in the quirky, rustic integrity of a man sure of himself and his place in the scheme of things.

Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s Patricia is simply luminous: she lights up the screen with a quiet, authoritative playing that simply emanates from within – without artifice or intrusive technique. Unlike many beautiful actresses, she radiates an unselfconscious assurance to simply be on camera and let wonderfully expressive soulful eyes and nature do the rest. We believe with equal conviction in Patricia’s instinctive passion, unaffected innocence and capacity to love. Bewitching.

This is a film of a great charm, with a very French lightness of touch, flirting gently at times with moments verging almost on farce; it lifts the spirits and for a little while at least, makes us believe in the simple reality of flawed human beings struggling if not to be good, then to be better; and accepting responsibility for both.

Only cynics beware. For the rest – don’t miss.

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