Friday, December 30, 2011

Marcel Pagnol and Marseille

Every now and then I read a book or see a film that I think is truly wonderful and want to talk about it and share it with friends.  I don’t like to write reviews nor do I like reading them, not long ones, that is.  I don’t care much for critique, although I do sometimes like to know what the book or film is about so I can decide whether or not I want to read or watch it.

Because I expected that TV on Christmas evening was going to be slim pickings, I bought myself a DVD, and now feel compelled to tell everyone about it.  It is a DVD of a trilogy that I had seen some 15 years ago, although the films are much older.  In the last few years I wanted to obtain it and see the films again, but these being old, classic films, it seemed the only DVDs were collector’s items and priced accordingly.  But when I looked again in November, I found they had become affordable.

Anyone who knows of Alice Waters or has eaten in her restaurant will be familiar with the names of the films and/or the major characters.  This is the Marseille Trilogy (also known as the Fanny Trilogy) and the films are titled Marius, Fanny, and Cesar.  Panisse doesn’t get a title, but he is one of the main characters in the films, and if you’ve had the good fortune to have eaten at Chez Panisse, you will be familiar with the posters of these films that decorate the walls there.  Waters named her main restaurant after one of the important protagonists, her bakery/café after another, and her tapas bar after Cesar, who actually is the heart and soul of the three films.  Apparently Alice Waters was a Pagnol fan before I had ever heard of him.

The story, briefly, is about Fanny, who has loved Marius since they were both children growing up in the same neighborhood of Marseille – the Old Port.  Marius loves Fanny, but he also loves the sea which has a very strong pull on him to sail and discover far-off places.  Cesar, is Marius’s father, and Panisse is Cesar’s good friend.  The story shows us how these people and a few others form a community within the neighborhood of the Old Port of Marseille, and how sometimes strong community leads to extended family.

Pagnol’s dialogue is wonderful.  I don’t understand the original French, but even the English subtitles tell me that the dialogue is wonderful.  There is drama, romance, and a good measure of humor. The conversations are real, and the humor is natural, never resorting to jokes.  Much of the humor is delivered in anecdotes and those always contain a grain of truth.

Marseille is the setting and the source of inspiration for these films.  Pagnol said that he didn’t know he loved Marseille.  Moving far away (he went to Paris) and seeing it in his mind’s eye, he realized he adored this city which he didn’t like as a youngster.  This often happens – that we discover our attachments when we’ve been away.

The culture portrayed is Marseillais, and the French spoken is Marseillais French.  This is not the Marseille of gangsters, but of the neighborhood of the Old Port that has since disappeared.  Still, you get a marvelous sense of place when you watch.  I visited Marseille on my first trip to France with Manuel several years ago, so I especially enjoyed seeing the scenic and outdoor shots. 

Marius was made in 1931, Fanny in 1932, and Cesar in 1936.  Although the films and the people come from a different time and place, you need no explanations to understand them.  These were very early talkies and at the beginning, you notice the old-fashioned style of acting, particularly in the dramatic scenes.  In fact, Marius was first a hit on the stage before it was made into a film.  Pagnol brought all the actors from the stage production to the filming and continued with the same cast for the second the third film.

Pagnol’s characters are true heroes.  There are no base or vile characters in his films.  No villains, no nasty people.  Pagnol likes his characters and makes us like them too.  They are human throughout and delicately portrayed.  They are complex, not easily or immediately understood.  We discover their different facets gradually as the trilogy unfolds.

In Marius there is a scene of a card game that Pagnol at first didn’t want to include, thinking that it was only a sketch.  Now, everyone in France (of a certain age, perhaps) knows the lines and it is part of their national consciousness.  I’m hoping to learn those lines one day!

If you want to read more about Marseille, I like M.F.K. Fisher’s A Considerable Town.
My favorite Pagnol books are the two memoirs he wrote of his youth, published as one volume: My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle.  These were also made into films (but not by him) and the films of these books are also wonderful. 

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