Pascal Amoretti (Daniel Auteuil) is a simple rural well-digger, trying to raise his five daughters on his own during pre-WWII France after his wife passed away. His eldest daughter Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) was raised at a convent in Paris but has returned to the town of Salon to help her father. One day she meets Jacques Mazel, an air force pilot and the spoiled son of the affluent owner of the local general store. After Jacques’ amorous advances result in her falling pregnant, Pascal struggles to come to terms with his feelings about his previously pure and virginal daughter.
Auteuil is perhaps best known to non-French audiences for his acclaimed work in Michael Haneke’s “Hidden”, an unnerving film about voyeurism and secrets. Here, he not only takes on the key acting role of patriarch and disillusioned father, he also directs and writes, adapting the screenplay from Marcel Pagnol’s French-language novel La Fille Du Puisatier.
Clearly this multi-hyphenated role proves far from being too much for him to handle and instead he proves himself adroit on all fronts. The film opens to beautiful, calm, idyllic pastoral scenes, with fields, woods, farmhouses and hills all perfectly framed. For the first half hour or so, there is the nagging suspicion that we are going to be presented with a very lovely-looking film, admirable in certain qualities, but failing to properly engage our emotions. But then as it slowly moves through the gears of the narrative and the escalating plights of the protagonists as war breaks out, Jacques is lost in combat and Patricia is banished to her aunt’s home, the performances fill out and embed themselves firmly under our skin.
Pascal could have remained a one-dimensional character, angry at his daughter and the overly-indulged Jacques, but instead Auteuil finds depths of pride, rage, irrationality and conflicted emotions, rendering him a fully formed human being. Likewise Patricia could easily have been a bland, wronged angel, but instead comes across as (by turns) ashamed, impulsive, honourable and stoic. Jacques is perhaps the trickiest character, remaining wholly unsympathetic for the most part, but again develops into something more rounded. Even his initially hysterical and superficially bitchy mother reveals depths of contrition and humility before the curtain falls.
Given the hugely impressive acting and writing on display here, it is to the film’s (and Auteuil’s) credit that it remains light without becoming trivialised. Issues of family name and identity, honour, forgiveness, grace, compassion, resentment and guilt are all covered with due gravity but without po-faced gloominess and the brisk sub-100 minute running time flies by, a tribute to Auteuil’s light-handed direction. Characters develop believably, scenes unfold convincingly, conversations are given room to breath without rushing on. Particular praise goes to two scenes, one where Pascal first confronts Jacques’ parents, his face a masterful blend of sadness, dignity and anger and a subsequent encounter between the same characters at Pascal’s home – a delicate back and forth scene of humility, grief, repentance and understanding.
A beautiful film to look at, with rich dialogue to savour and a raft of top-drawer acting performances. It takes a little time to hit its stride, but once it does it grabs hold of you and will likely force a smile onto all but the most reluctant of faces. The Well Digger’s Daughter is available on DVD from early April and I would encourage you to get it on your waiting list now.
Extras: Just a trailer