The writer and director Marcel Pagnol (1905-1974) is today perhaps best known outside France as a result of the international acclaim in the 1980s of the film adaptations by Claude Berri of his novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1986). César (1936) was written directly for the screen and brought to a close the impressively successful ‘Marseille trilogy’. Although the first two films – Marius (1931) and Fanny (1932) were not directed by Pagnol, he played a crucial role in their making, and indeed the trilogy itself was very much part of Pagnol’s own creation and overseeing.
He was an important personality throughout the 1930s – as well as his work in the theatre, he was also a director and distributor, and established his own highly influential studio and production company.
Stephen Heath’s dense, informative book is extremely comprehensive on this part of Pagnol’s life in the 1930s, giving up nearly a quarter of this most recent BFI study on his doctrine and cinematic activities. Heath certainly know his subject inside out – there is a range of refernces and secondary sources in this early section that provide testament to Pagnol’s creativity that neatly introduces the director and places the trajectory of hjis carrer against the backdrop of wider institutional changes taking place in the French film industry at this time.
After a brief section synopsising the trilogy, Heath devotes the central section to close sequence analyis of César, illustrated through a rich selection of photographs. He looks at questions of speech and accent, cinema and theatricality, stereotypes and the film’s cultural effects.
The chapters are neatly divided into subsections, each dealing with a constituent part of the film. There are discussions of ‘values’, ‘family matters’, ‘women’ and ‘lying’, but best of all is a section on comedy and tragedy, in which Heath looks at the skilful juxatpositon of the two by Pagnol – ‘If they marry it’s a comedy, if they not it’s a tragedy’ was the director’s watchword. Heath is also keen to place Pagnol within the pantheon of great French directors. As he argues, if Welles and Renoir spoke so highly of him, there seems no reason to elevate him higher. Indeed, Pagnol is a rather forgotten director today – few would make the connection between him and Jean de Florette – and Heath is to be congratulated for opening up Pagnol for closer inspection.
Heath is especially strong on the study’s final section in which he examines César’s relation to the contemporary artistic and cultural-historical reality of Marseille. Too often, 1930s French cinema is regarded through a Paris-centric prism, but in fact Heath recognises "the city’s importance in the history of cinema." Marseille is the main character of the trilogy, and the author does a splendid job in linking together its various linguistic, cultural and architectural specificities. Mention is also made of Taxi (1998), that wonderfully exuberant Gallic chase movie filmed in and around the city’s ‘vieux port’, and by referring to Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), a more direct link between French cinema and Hollywood is brought to light.
There are lacunae – there is little on critical reception to the film, nor an appraisal of the 1951 reissue of the trilogy, and it would have been useful to to learn more about Raimu, the star of the trilogy. More crucially, César is a difficult film to watch – it is long, melodramatic and hampered by stagey performances – and is also difficult to get hold of, and so this book might miss out on capturing the floating reader.
But the more discernible, there is a great deal of interest here, not least a thorough and concise overview of 1930s French cinema. The arrival of sound in the late 20s brought about a seismic shift in French film – would directors embrace or reject the new technology? It is proof of Pagnol’s tireless support of the ‘talkies’ that his output, though verbose for some, placed the voice at the centre of new filmmaking traditions. In this respect, Heath recognises his pioneering spirit, paving the way for the humanist realism of Renoir, Gréville and Guédiguian.