The Marseille Trilogy comes with a lot of history. These early French talkies are adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s stage plays, helmed initially by other directors, but overseen by the writer, who would go on to direct the final entry himself (the only one not taken from a play). A successful film career for Pagnol followed, only for him to fall out of fashion in the 1950s until Francois Truffaut resurrected his reputation. At least amongst cinephiles. I remember seeing The Marseille Trilogy on the shelf at the video store where I worked, its boxes faded and dusty, their old-fashioned look perhaps contributing to their never being rented. I was another of the philistines who kept passing Pagnol by.
Then again, in the DVD age, one also couldn’t be blamed for sitting back and waiting with at least some fair confidence that a restoration was on its way. Wait long enough and all these things will come back around again, right? And there is plenty to watch in the meantime.
It’s funny to put it that way now, and also to consider that, in the intervening years (more than a decade at this point), I sometimes thought about those boxes. I can see them in my head--mostly white with pinkish lettering and black-and-white photos giving very little information about who Marius and Fanny and César might be--and every once in a while, perhaps when I’d see Pagnol or the trilogy mentioned, I’d wonder what maybe I’d missed.
Luckily, I was right and these things do come around, and Criterion has a new The Marseille Trilogy boxed set struck from 4K restorations that should look light years better than those old versions, and I can make up for lost time watching them in a state that represents how Pagnol and his collaborators intended. (In his video intro on the Marius disc, director Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de torchon) reflects on the damaged prints that were all that were available back in the day.) And I must say, it was worth the wait. The Marseille Trilogy is something extraordinary, an entirely human drama, arguably more novelistic than theatrical, wide in scope but careful in focus.
The first two movies in The Marseille Trilogy, Marius and Fanny cover about a two-year span, with the biggest time jump taking place in Fanny, its beginning overlapping with the conclusion of Marius, every bit the chapter 2 of a much longer narrative.
1932’s Marius, directed by Alexander Korda (That Hamilton Woman [review]), introduces us to our cast. Bar owner César (Raimu, The Pearls of the Crown [review]) and his son Marius (Pierre Fresnay, The Man Who Knew Too Much [review]); Marius’ childhood friend, Fanny (Orane Demazis, Les misérables [review]), a street vendor; the merchant Panisse (Fernard Charpin, Pépé le moko); and many more, a colorful gathering of different peoples brought together at the port in Marseille. Marius and Fanny have grown up to fall in love, though neither would admit it. Recently widowed, Panisse is looking to marry Fanny as a way to bring some happiness back to his home, something that will end up forcing the issue between the two younger people. The only hiccup is Marius’ wanderlust. He’s not interested in running his dad’s tavern, he wants to see the world.
What follows from this set-up is a very human drama, with people both acting in their own self-interests and then rejecting the same when it means someone else maybe deserves a better turn. Fanny ends up being the one ready to give up the most: she’ll let Marius chase his passion even if it means letting him go for several years. She’d rather miss him while he explores far-off lands than be responsible for his always wondering what else is out there.
Marius ends with Marius leaving for Australia, and Fanny explores what happens once he’s gone. Released a year later and directed by Marc Allégret, Fanny takes us deeper into the characters Marius has left behind, exposing their different sides, and revealing them not to be entirely what we originally expected. Perhaps most notable is the relationship between César and Panisse, a friendship that dates back to their days in school. In Marius, we saw them bicker harmlessly the way such old friends do; in Fanny, longer-held resentments surface from that bickering, but so too do we see how generous a nature they really have. Our allegiances shift more than once, but then, life often changes that way, doesn’t it?
“Life” is a key word here. Pagnol is a writer who lets his characters truly live. Though directed by others, Pagnol is really the author of these films, casting the actors and running the rehearsals and generally setting the course for how they would go. You can see the theatrical roots showing at times, particularly with Marius, where action is mostly confined to one location (most often, the bar) and driven by dialogue. Pagnol is not afraid to let scenes run long, to let conversations follow their natural course, long enough for characters to equivocate, expose their true feelings, and double-back on them. We get to know everyone in The Marseille Trilogy by spending time with them. For Pagnol, character is plot, and what each character does in relation to another is how he builds his story. The Marseille Trilogy is a great family epic, one that grapples with time and growth, rather than focusing on one driving narrative device. If it were a TV show, it would be a soap opera. Who loves whom and why, and what will they betray to make that person they love happy?
Not that The Marseille Trilogy is cliché or hokey (and not that soap operas have to be, despite the hokey clichés about them); rather, our investment in the participants means the drama is riveting. Any cliché turn Pagnol might take is less a fault of the material and more years of cinema and television that have come since preparing us for certain twists in this kind of material. It doesn’t really matter if you can see ahead to evident developments, though, as the getting there is always surprising.
Also, the acting is so good, you might find yourself wishing this were an ongoing series. Some of the best moments in both Marius and Fanny have nothing to do with the central story, but instead are sidebar instances where other characters are just spending time together. An hilarious card game with César, Panisse, and their friends in Marius is one of the most charming things you’ll see this, or any, year. Raimu shows himself a master of gesture, and he has an easy chemistry with all of his co-stars that will make you glad when Pagnol inserts other such scenes into Fanny. Special mention should also be made of Pierre Fresnay, whose Marius returns almost two years after he originally left, and though he has been transformed by his adventures, the actor merely matures the performance rather than making a hard shift into a different gear. We can believe that the confident, hardened Marius in Fanny is the same as the anxious and often capricious young Marius we saw in his own movie. The cinematography opens up, too, breaking out of the confines of interior locations, showing more of the seaside town.
Which makes me all the more interested to see where these characters end up in César, the final installment of The Marseille Trilogy, when Marcel Pagnol takes charge of the camera himself. But that’s something for its own review...
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.