(French, 1932, 125 minutes, b&w, video, in French with English subtitles)
Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy, Marius, Fanny, and Cesar is an epic of the ordinary, an affectionate portrait of the big routines and little sadnesses that are the landmarks of working men and women everywhere. Fanny was the second film in the trilogy of films based on writer/director Marcel Pagnol’s play Marius, and its success in 1932 convinced Pagnol that the heartfelt reception of the previous year’s film version of Marius had not been a fluke. In the wake of Fanny, Pagnol started his own production company, a venture that would guarantee him maximum artistic freedom in the always economically-perilous world of the French film industry.
In 1934, he would adopt the name Les Films Marcel Pagnol for his little company, defiantly announcing his status as auteur decades before a younger generation of critic-directors, led by Francois Truffaut, would announce the doctrine of auteurism to the world. Ironically, they would reject Pagnol’s claim to membership in their pantheon of great directors, because his films, they said, were "filmed theater." Pagnol would have agreed, for he believed that the human voice, and the words it framed, were the very essence of drama, whether on the stage or on the screen.
Truffaut and his brothers and sisters in the French New Wave would have envied Pagnol. To capture the human voice, Pagnol acquired the most advanced sound equipment in the French industry, and his cameras and technicians were similarly first-rate. In the technically clunky world of early sound films, in France as around the world, the Marius trilogy stood out for its professionalism. Pagnol patiently shot retakes, and experimented to find the best ways of direct sound recording, to capture the full flavor of the performances in his films. He spared no expense: in 1935, he shot two films, Merlusse and Ciglon, completely over when he was unsatisfied with the results. Pagnol even opened his own theater in Marseilles, in time for the premiere of Cesar in 1936, partially so he could control the circumstances of his previews. Unlike other producers, Pagnol also took great care with the German and Swedish versions of his films, which were conventionally shot at the same time as the original French films.
Fanny was born as a stage play, with Harry Baur in the lead, but audiences clamored for the return of Marius’ film cast when Pagnol began adapting his play for the screen. In particular, the boisterous Raimu, star of music hall and boulevard shows, became forever identified with the role of "Cesar Olivier." Raimu, like many of the Marius stock company, including Alida Rouffe, Charpin, and Orane Demazis, came from the world of Marseilles theater, and spoke with cadences all of France would recognize as the trademark southern dialect of the colorful port city. As film scholar Ginette Vincendeau has written, the distinctive Marseille culture in the trilogy stood in for a wistful remembrance of all things archaic for the films’ original audiences. In a time of social change in France, the recollection of pre-World War I life suddenly became filled with nostalgia, and Pagnol’s cinematic Marseille, with its fishmongers and narrow lanes. Everyone on these films seems to know everyone else’s business, yet these busybodies are also concerned about the human ecology of their tightly-woven community. "I did not know I loved Marseilles... I discovered this after four years of Parisian life," wrote Pagnol. For his French audiences, no matter where they were from, Pagnol’s Marseilles was home.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The second part of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy is funnier and more expansive than the first (Mariu), once again showcasing the great Raimu in the role of Cesar. In this one, after Marius has gone to sea, Fanny (Orane Demazis) discovers she is pregnant and agrees to marry the wealthy older man Panisse. The risky subject is treated with a frankness and compassion that would have been unusual in an American film of the period. The pleasures of Pagnol’s script are in the foibles and eccentricities of the older characters—Charpin is skillful as Panisse, and Raimu is once again wonderful, hiding his feelings behind his brusque exterior, trying to run everyone else’s business while barely managing his own. To watch him is to catch a glimpse of the French theater of an era now long gone.
The following is excerpted from a review by Marty Mapes that appears in Movie Habit:
In Marius, Fanny toyed with the affections of Mr. Panisse, the sailmaker (played by Charpin). She flirted with him in order to make Marius jealous. When her trick worked, she discarded Panisse, oblivious to his feelings and his very existence as a human being.
Panisse is not deterred by Fanny’s feelings for Marius. Now that Marius is gone, Panisse takes the opportunity to renew his proposal…. In the earlier film, Panisse was a minor character, more a plot device than a real person. Fanny’s emotional cruelty made him look like a fool. Even his drinking buddies thought he was the softest of the group, the butt of most of their jokes.
In Fanny, Panisse is fleshed out. We learn he was married once before; now he’s a widower. He once had dreams of being a father to a little brood, but either he or his wife was infertile…. So naturally, when Fanny confesses she’s pregnant, he is thrilled. He will finally have a son to raise and call his own.
Modern movies tend to have a strong central conflict or antagonist. Fanny and the other films in the trilogy, on the other hand, are more concerned with character development and long scenes of dialogue about the smaller conflicts that do arise… like soap opera, only better.
The film’s most dramatic scene is also the most dramatic scene in the trilogy. It begins when Marius (Pierre Fresnay) comes back home on leave…. Marius arrives confused and angry, and all he can think to do is try to take possession of his wife and child. Fanny knows better than to let Marius do that, but she is still so in love with him that she might just give in.
In addition to the great acting and dialogue, there is a satisfying undertone to the whole picture, one of decency. People do the right thing for the right reasons. For example, Panisse wants to marry Fanny, not to take advantage of her desperation, but because he truly loves her and wants to help raise her child…. When characters politely tell and ignore white lies (which happens often enough that it might be considered a theme of these films), the motives are not hypocritical; they are merely polite, decent, and for the good.
They really don’t make films like this anymore, but they should.
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