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The Well-Digger's Daughter(2011)
A father in pre-WWII France is torn between his sense of honor and his deep love for his saintly daughter when she gets in trouble with the wealthy son of a shopkeeper.
For more about The Well-Digger's Daughter and the The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray release, see the The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on December 19, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Kad Merad, Sabine Azéma, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Director: Daniel Auteuil
» See full cast & crew
The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray Review
A thoughtful melodrama straight out of an older era.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, December 19, 2012
Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter. Sylvia Plath's poem "The Beekeeper's Daughter." Amy Tan's The Bonesetter's Daughter. Noticing a pattern? This particular titling convention—definite article + possessive noun/occupation + synonym for female offspring—has turned ubiquitous over the last decade, with quite literally hundreds of novels following suit. Is it simply a trend? A me-too way for authors and publishers to cash in on a familiar-sounding name? Or is there something deeper going on here—a collective commentary on young women, essentially possessed by their fathers, lacking their own personal and cultural identities? Whatever the cause, when I see a novel —or film, in this case—with the word "daughter" in the title, I almost instantly write it off, rightly or wrongly, as derivative, pseudo-literary, or worse.
I'm glad the positive festival buzz about The Well-Digger's Daughter caught up to me before I dismissed the movie out of hand. The film is derivative—in the sense that it's based on a Marcel Pagnol novel and a loose remake of Pagnol's own 1940 adaptation—but its old-fashioned tone and narrative style run refreshingly contrary to most modern romantic dramas. Convert it to black and white, crop it down to the 1.33:1 "Academy" ratio, scuff up the picture a bit, and you'd be forgiven for mistaking this moral tale as a genuine product of mid-20th century French filmmaking.
It's the sort of picture New Wave auteur Françoise Truffaut might've pejoratively lumped in with the pre-and-post war French film industry's "Tradition of Quality"—the valuing of polished craft over experimentation, of psychological realism over intellectual abstractions, and of staid literary plots over newer, younger, more socially relevant stories. Truffaut may not have been wrong when he wrote about this "Certain Tendency in French Cinema"—as the title of his influential essay for the journal Cahiers du cinéma goes—but like many revolutionaries, he was perhaps too shortsightedly dismissive of that which he rebelled against. Famed actor-turned-debut director Daniel Auteuil—whom you may recognize from Michael Haneke's Caché—knows there can be lasting value in craftsmanship and straightforward storytelling. In The Well- Digger's Daughter, set in the nineteen-teens, he uses the cinematic language of the "tradition of quality" while subtly subverting the morality and gender attitudes those sorts of films typically voiced.
Auteuil himself plays the well-digger of the title, Pascal Amoretti, a middle-aged blue-collar bloke from the south of France, whose wife has recently died and left him to care for six daughters. The second-oldest, doe-eyed 18-year-old daddy's girl Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), was sent to live with a Parisian benefactress, and she's since returned—cultured and beautiful, still sweet but now out-of-place in her rustic surroundings. "She speaks with a posh accent, like a minister," Amoretti explains to his employee, Philipe (Kad Merad), a decent, hard-working man who clearly has eyes for the girl, though he's balding, plain, and several years her senior.
Amoretti is desperate to keep Patricia close to home, so he encourages Philipe to pursue her, giving him permission to take to her to an air show the following day. Patricia makes up excuses for why she can't attend—she'd rather Philipe take a liking to her homely older sister, Amanda (Emilie Cazenave)—but she perks up when she hears that the star of the show is the handsome young pilot Jacques Mazel (Nicholas Duvauchelle), whom she met earlier that afternoon on the way to bring her father lunch. If it wasn't love at first sight, it was definitely an instant carnal attraction, with the blond Jacques, the son of a wealthy merchant (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), whisking her off on his Triumph motorcycle.
A secret rendezvous between the two results in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy—a real taboo in turn-of-the-century times—and to make matters worse, Jacques is called up to serve in WWI and has to leave suddenly without saying goodbye. He gives his overbearing mother (Sabine Azema) a letter to deliver to Patricia, but—knowing the well-digger's daughter is poor and, therefore, unworthy of her son—she burns it instead, setting off a chain of familial tragedies and dramatic moments that I'll leave unspoiled. The film is expertly plotted, setting up numerous ways that situations could play out, and generally choosing the route that leaves you thinking I didn't expect that, but yes, of course, that makes perfect sense.
What really makes the film, though, are the wonderfully realized characters, multi-faceted creations who emotionally rotate throughout the film, showing all of their sides. Philipe, who seems so pushy and over-eager at first, becomes noble and sacrificial, and we find ourselves hoping that his good-natured concern will be rewarded. Jacques is harder to pin down. He's your prototypical cad—dashing, smooth, maybe a bit disingenuous—and his true self is slow in being revealed. The biggest 180—well, a 360, really—is from Amoretti, a doting father whose wounded honor leaves him bitter and excommunicative, overly concerned with the name of his bastard grandchild. When he finally sees the kid, though—cooing in a basket, the happiest baby imaginable—his shame turns into protectiveness and pride. As for Patricia, she's the film's center, her grief and love—and the direness of her situation, considering the morality of the period—holding everything together. The acting, from one and all, is nuanced and involving.
Thematically, the film is wonderfully multi-layered, taking the socio-sexual dynamics of a Jane Austen novel and transplanting them to WWI-era rural France. You have the element of scandal. You have the jealous, not-yet-married older sister. You have the rigid class distinctions, particularly between the two suitors, one a polished, well-off member of the cultural elite, the other a rough-hewn man of the earth. You have—most of all—the concerns over a woman's place, her sexuality, and its relation to the standing of the family name. The Well-Digger's Daughter may seem traditional on the surface, but its subtle vein of satire—and there are some decidedly funny moments here—calls out the hypocrisy of those who would put honor before love.
The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Well-Digger's Daughter emerges on Blu-ray—courtesy of Kino-Lorber—with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that's true to source and strikingly sharp. Shot on 35mm, the image retains its natural filmic appearance here, with a warm layer of grain and no signs of digital noise reduction, excess compression, or other concerns. You may suspect some slight edge enhancement was applied—I did, at first—but on closer inspection it looks like the picture really is that sharp, with surface, skin, and clothing textures that are extremely finely resolved. This actually leads to a two or three instances of moire shimmer—see the weft of Amoretti's sweater in certain scenes—where the lens is effectively out-resolving the ability of a 1080p picture to display the full degree of detail that's being captured. (Don't worry, though; this is always brief and far from distracting.) Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Jean-François Robin, the film has a rich color palette—tinged with a slightly nostalgic warm cast—that's perfectly reproduced here, with balanced contrast and no under- or over-saturation. A beautiful high definition image in all respects.
The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray, Audio Quality
For a mostly quiet drama that focuses on the dialogue between characters, The Well-Digger's Daughter—sporting a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track—has surprisingly involving and dynamic sound design. The mix is strong with room-filling environmental ambience—insect and bird calls, blowing wind through tall grass, crowds murmuring and clapping at the air show, etc.—making full use of the rear speakers. Filling out the soundscape is an evocative score by Alexander Desplat (The Tree of Life, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and many more), which seems to borrow the first few bars from Krzysztof Komeda's theme for Rosemary's Baby. Voices are cleanly recorded and always balanced well. Do note, though, that The Well-Digger's Daughter has hard-coded English subtitles, meaning they can't be turned on or off at will. They're always there. This won't be a big deal for most audiences—who can't speak French and are going to leave the subtitles on anyway—but it may be a mild annoyance to some.
The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Well-Digger's Daughter Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
One of this year's best surprises from the festival circuit, The Well-Digger's Daughter is a return to old-form romantic melodrama, but with a satirical subtext that points out the irrationality and hypocrisy of turn-of-the-century sexual mores. The film is beautifully shot and acted, and I was happy to learn that actor/director Daniel Auteuil is already prepping two more Marcel Pagnol adaptations. Here's to hoping they're as good as this one. It comes out next week, but don't let The Well- Digger's Daughter get lost in the Christmastime shuffle—it's well worth seeing. Highly recommended!
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