You don't have to be a Francophile to take pleasure from The Well Digger's Daughter, but if you are, then brace yourself for a buffet of your favorite dishes. There's the lulling sunlight of the Provençal countryside, a beautiful girl, a handsome young man, a stream, some baguettes and drama.
There's also Daniel Auteuil, the French actor with the ample nose who came to prominence a quarter century ago in Jean de Florette, and whose sad eyes once again absorb us with their lived-in verité. For decades now he's warmed the French cinema with portraits of decent men and their inexorable humanity, and he's the heart of The Well Digger's Daughter. Auteuil also directs, adapting the script from Marcel Pagnol's 1940 film of the same name.
The story revolves around the widower Pascal (Auteuil) and his daughter Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), who's just turned 18. Pascal has six daughters, but he's so fond of Patricia, he tells a friend, that "I love her as much as I'd love a son." The friend is surprised to hear this, and so are we: In their old world of class distinction, patriarchy rules, and honor comes before anything else. But in the end, a new understanding of the social contract begins to emerge, with a younger, more worldly generation teaching acceptance to the elders.
The transformation begins when Patricia meets Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the well-off pilot son of a local shopkeeper who literally sweeps her off her feet (to carry her across the stream). They fall quickly in love, and then, just as quickly, World War II intervenes.
The Well Digger's Daughter often feels rather 19th century, and the sex (even kisses) happens off screen. This is perhaps a bit too quaint, even for people who crave this sort of movie. Its manner is both its pleasure and its limitation, and while its characters are sufficiently complex, it's not a very absorbing film, merely an ably entertaining one.
When Patricia breaks the news of her forbidden love to her father, Pascal doesn't go par avion on her. "You've sinned," he says gently, and then, he embraces her. But his tranquility is a mask, and when he finally opens up, his employee — who's even lower down the economic ladder — neatly summarizes matters. "Maybe I don't have much honor," he says, feasting on humble pie, "but I have love. One can replace the other."