Had Claude Berri’s prestige picture Jean de Florette been made earlier in the 1960’s, it would have suffered an immense, irrevocable blow from French cinema’s most formidable critics and would be subsequently dusted out from film books. Fortunately, in historical context, this was made and released in the 80’s, the nouvelle vague had dimmed and the cinéma du papa, or the heritage cinema, had claimed its rebirth. The equivalent to the British costume drama, it consisted of a body of films adapted from literary sources, but where the quintessential British period film portrays upper-class snobbery, upstairs-and-downstairs chaos, the French heritage cinema explores the rural landscape where the class system is out of the question and centres rather on the mysteries of provincial folks. Yet this never escaped the scathing scrutiny of French critics (both the best and worst in the world), branding this as a traditionalist affair rather than going forward. In close inspection of style, the critics were right:Florette is the complete antithesis of New Wave cinema, favouring linear film narrative, beautific photography and overt melodrama. But what critics had seem to ignore was no matter how literate this kind of filmmaking was,Florette remains to be a glorious melodrama. Unfussy in its style, free from the jump-cuts and self-conscious attitudes of an auteurist effort, Berri takes his time to tell the story of human avarice amid the beautifully photographed, pastoral landscapes of Provence. The plot is fairly simple – a landowner and his nephew conspire to claim the neighbouring land owned by a city-slicker, the titular hunchback Jean de Florette, played mesmerisingly by Gérard Depardieu, by surreptitiously blocking the main water source of the land. Water, here, is the classic origin of conflict, and this dark narrative of greed and murder conspiracy just unfolds unhurriedly, to an intriguing effect it will keep you rooted. And Yves Montand is deliciously oily and conniving as the affluent, ageing farmer Cesar Soubeyran, one of his last roles before his death, and despite the film being named after Depardieu’s thwarted agricultural newbie, this is Montand’s film and his plot to meet his own end, which transforms into a karma backlash, as told in Part Two.
Whether you agree with the damning attack of French critics or nod along with the millions of who praised and loved this French soap-opera, there’s no denying that Jean de Florette is an exquisitely photographed, lovingly portrayed elemental tale of land, water and the people that fought to possess them.