The Water of the Hills: Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs

Two novels by Marcel Pagnol, published 1962
English translation by W.E. van Heyningen
Two films by Claude Berri, Orion Classics Releases, produced 1987

Review by Jenn

Book CoverHaving both seen the movies and read the books in a comparative literature class in college, I was a bit at a loss as to where my review should go - with the films or with the books? Since the beautifully filmed movies did not deviate perceptibly from the powerfully written novels, I decided a cross-reference would be in order.

It is early in the 20th century, and the inhabitants of the tiny French village of Les Bastides Blanches are astonished by a rather unusual newcomer in their midst - Jean Cadoret (played by Gerard Depardieu), a cheerful, overeducated (by village standards) hunchback fresh from the city of Crespin with his adoring wife and lovely little daughter in tow. To the amazement of the villagers, Jean has come to take possession of a farm in their own village, and is full of plans to put in crop, of all things, of pumpkins and rabbits.

The provincial village is holding something against the innocent Jean. Not his hump, though that causes them to look twice; nor his education, which makes them look at him askance; nor his plans, which make them laugh. No, Jean Cadoret's "crime" is that he is not from Les Bastides Blanches - that is, he was not born there, and as far as the villagers knew he was related to none of them and none of his people came from the little town. This and this alone makes Jean an object of suspicion to be shunned.

Jean himself shrugs off the unfriendliness, erroneously chalking it up to his hump, which naturally in the past had brought him pity and revulsion. He is an optimist - his good heart, good nature, intelligence, and willingness to work hard had always won him the respect and friendship of everyone around him, and he is sure they will do so in this new village as well. His deformity has always been his lot in life, and he is accustomed to overcoming it.

But the problem here is not the hump, but blood - and a pity it is that Jean doesn't know it, for a few words from him could solve the problem in a heartbeat: his mother, Florette Camoins, was born on the farm he is about to take possession of, and she remained an inhabitant of the village until her marriage to the man from Crespin. There are only two people in Les Bastides Blanches who know Jean de Florette's origin, and unfortunately they are his worst enemies. Cesar (known as "The Papet") Soubeyran and his nephew Ugolin (played by Daniel Auteuil) had wanted Florette's farm for themselves, on which to put in a crop of carnations, and they are none too pleased at Jean's arrival. Cesar (played by Yves Montand) has another reason to hate the newcomer - while Jean's bloodline would have helped him out with the villagers, here it harms him with the Papet, who years ago had been desperately in love with Jean's mother, and heartbroken at her marriage to another man.

When the Papet and Ugolin plot to block the precious water source to Jean's new farm, the village looks the other way. It is not that they have any great love for the two Soubeyrans, the only ones left of a once large and still fiercely proud family, but that they will not take the part of a newcomer against their own people. The results prove disastrous for all concerned.

Manon of the Springs picks up three years after Jean de Florette leaves off. Manon, the hunchback's daughter (played by Emmanuelle Beart), has grown into a staggeringly beautiful young woman. She is seldom seen by the villagers, spending most of her days in the hills herding her goats. Ugolin, after unblocking the spring that he and the Papet had plugged to ruin Jean de Florette, is now a prosperous florist, having turned Jean's land into a carnation farm. He has nothing left to desire - until he spies a young shepherdess in the hills, whose beauty is enough to drive men mad. The Papet himself has only one unsatisfied longing - issue to carry on the Soubeyran name, which will die out with him unless Ugolin marries. The villagers go on with life as usual, except that they are carrying around a load of guilt buried in silence - a guilt that arises from a silence of a different kind three years earlier.

Manon herself, silent and furtive, hears things not meant to be heard and longs to revenge herself and her father on those who brought him down. When one day she happens upon a hidden spring deep in the hills, she finds her method. But Manon's plans are only a small part of the justice that strikes the guilty ones in the village of Les Bastides Blanches; fate steps in to strike the felling blow to the principal offenders in the areas nearest their hearts.

This is a very powerful story of crime and punishment, revenge, judgement, and, ultimately, forgiveness. The book is written with great sensitivity, and I'm told that Heyningen's translation is very good (though I can't say for myself, seeing that I don't speak French). Although often painful and bitter, it is a beautiful, well-told story, rich in plot, character, and unpredictability, that deserves the acclaim it received. The film has beautiful cinematography and draws a clear and sensitive portrait of a provincial people and their way of life. The book you can probably find in just about any library. If you can't catch the film on Bravo, check out your local Blockbuster Video- it will be in the Foreign Films section. Be warned - the movie carries subtitles, not dubbing. I'm a believer that dubbing takes away from the film, but I know this turns some people off.

June 1999

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