Monday, January 28, 2013

The Well-Digger’s Daughter – A Perfect Film

Among those films that are shown once or twice at the Twin Cities Film Festival and return for a week or two in the fall, The Well Digger’s Daughter deserves a special note. Set on the eve of World War I and shot amid the glorious countryside of the Alpille Mountains, just east of Arles, France, it tells the story of a simple well-digger, his assistant, and his five daughters.

It’s fun to see Daniel Auteuil reprise the role that introduced him to the world many years ago, of the wily carnation farmer in Jean de Florette. In The Well-Digger’s Daughter Auteuil plays a no less crusty, but simpler and more honorable character, and the film itself is a simpler production, too, devoid of knavery or revenge. But the characters are sketched with such sincerity and nuance that we’re entranced by, if not riveted to, what’s taking place on the screen.

 Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who plays the well-digger’s eldest daughter, deserves a special note. Her ability to project a moody, saintly intensity without saying much adds immeasurably to the strength of the plot.

The film is a fairy tale of sorts, on the order of Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, though there’s nothing magical about the plot. Then again, there is something a bit magical about the Provençal countryside. 

The film opens with a shot of a poppy field; I believe it’s a field Hilary and I hiked out to on May 1, 1978, just past the Abbaye de Montjamour but before you reach Daudet’s windmill. I looked at that field many times as we showed our slides to friends later—I’d recognize the outline of those hills anywhere.

As it happens, we watched The Well-Digger’s Daughter within the cozy confines of my “office,” streaming it from Netflix. I was drinking a glass of Côtes du Rhône at the time. The previous day I’d dug an old Time-Life book, The Cooking of Provincial France by M.F.K. Fischer, out of the basement in a fit of nostalgia. We were hosting a friend’s 60th birthday party and Hilary had the idea of reviving an old favorite, Tarte a la Tomate. 

Glancing at the text alongside the recipe, I read:
Soup is mainly for supper, for both young and old, in provincial France: in fact, soup is supper. Country people simply eat a big bowl of it, often made with potatoes or bread, and go to bed.
There’s something quaint about these old cookbooks. (This one came out in 1968.) The world has changed. Then again, what often appeals to us is the world before it changed On the other hand, nowadays we can sit at home, drinking wine and watching films on demand about country folk a century and half a world away, eating soup, digging wells, attending air shows where the planes have open cockpits, getting pregnant, and sundry other stuff.   

The tart turned out well, by the way. Well, how could it not, with half a pound of Gruyere cheese on top?


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