The Marseille Trilogy: Life Goes to the Movies

For those among us, particularly the millennial variety, who tend to think of movies as engineered entertainment machines, there’s nothing like the full-court press of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy to remind us that what we’re really talking about when we talk about movies is humanity, humanness: skin, marrow, blood, and spit. Folly, devotion, fear, and nerve. Love, mostly.

Fashions come and go, and the stock of these initial incursions into filmmaking by Pagnol, a hugely popular figure of the French theater, has gone bullish and bearish over the last eight decades, but the films themselves always seem to rise and reacquaint newbies with the existential intimacy and empathy inherent to the medium. It seems to be an altogether organic process. Canons naturally evolve over time—and over time, some works and artists become unassailably institutionalized as bedrock, while others fall away into oblivion. Cinema may still be too young to have a canon capable of any kind of conclusive coherence, as sociopolitically troublesome as that idea has become. Who knows what the cinephilic vogues of 2027 will make of Godard or Denis or Apichatpong?

Or Pagnol. Still, as I say, it would be difficult to suppose that the pure nectar drip of humanism, as Pagnol’s films represent it, won’t always be a significant part of the argument. Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936) are films as saturated in rough-hewn everyman flaws and foibles as they are in le Midi sunshine and brine-worn wood—and, we should not overlook, the nimbus of early-talkie antiqueness, an addictively lovely, hand-carved feeling movies would never have again. But that is, to a large extent, looking backward. We can swoon meta-nostalgically, but in their day, when they were an early-talkie revelation, Pagnol’s films were terrific hits at home, at once scrupulously local (there was concern at first that northern French viewers would feel excluded from their distinctive patois) and, it turns out, fabulously universal. Cultural specificity could and did travel; indeed, one of cinema’s fundamental attractions has always been its capacity for globe-trotting revelation. American critics tended to fidget (the New York Times’ Harry T. Shuman thought Marius “could be considerably abbreviated”), but audiences worldwide also fell in love, even as the evolving medium was struggling to understand itself.

Pagnol couldn’t have been happier, but for some these were hardly movies at all. Virtually from the beginning, filmmakers, critics, and cognoscenti were busy wondering what the medium essentially was, aesthetically—was its value in capturing and duplicating reality within the image, or in constructing artistic experience by way of fabrication, montage, style, and illusion? Or does what’s intrinsically “cinematic” lie somewhere in between? The coming of sound, hobbling at first the medium’s ability to take flight stylistically, troubled the debate, but not for Pagnol, whose aesthetic heart belonged to the theater, where Marius and Fanny both originated. He was openly dismissive of cinema until it could talk, and he was never shy about his position, claiming outright in 1933, in his own short-lived movie magazine, Les cahiers du film, that “the talking film is the art of recording, preserving, and diffusing theater.” Cineastes were, and still can be, irritated by such talk, but on this count Pagnol may have been misunderstood (as filmmakers who quip tend to be). Look again at Pagnol’s plays: as theater, they are doggedly homely, realistic, filthy with unremarkable people, indulgent of undramatic digressions, full of secrets and hidden motivations, rich in the use of offstage space. In other words, rather untheatrical for their day and age—what Pagnol was trying to do onstage was to subvert and democratize what was commonly conceived of as “theater” (in the French late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that meant a series of “-isms”: romanticism, symbolism, absurdism), long before cinema adopted synchronous sound. When it did, he saw the medium as merely another window to throw open, another way to invite audiences into his world, which was a world where people who love each other hurt each other, and never stop talking.

In the films, Raimu’s César, the splenetic proprietor of the run-down Bar de la Marine and father of Pierre Fresnay’s restless Marius, is the loudest grandstander, with Fernand Charpin’s local mini-tycoon/widower Panisse running a close second. Broodingly secretive, Marius ably trades verbal body blows with his dad, while Orane Demazis’s Fanny, faithful little flower that she is, turns out to be the most eloquent of all. Truth be told, nothing happens in a hurry in these films—that’s an integral part of their unique personality. Distended, ranting arguments littered with detours and misunderstandings are de rigueur; we are invited to understand these people not by way of a mere hint or gesture but by way of vast blocks of time spent beside them, as they noisily fuss and gossip and disappoint one another. This is the trilogy’s ultimate secret weapon: beginning with what might seem like vaudeville caricatures, Pagnol goes for the long game, allowing his people to build in time, in each lengthy film and in the trilogy’s aggregate, where their defenses and energies are probed and pared away, exposing their interconnectedness, mutual history, and deathless bonds. Look how Charpin’s Panisse evolves, without really changing at all, from a scheming, selfish old fool in the first film to, by his death in the third, the community’s most beloved character, for whom even his adversaries hold a place in their hearts. By contrast, Marius begins as our primary figure—the tortured young provincial rogue enduring the explosions of his father and avoiding his responsibilities to his sweetheart—and then vanishes, succumbing to his wanderlust and leaving an unknowingly pregnant Fanny behind; by the time he reappears, time and life have made him a stranger, to the other characters and to us.

By comparison, César is a constant, a bear in perpetual mock pursuit of the respect and old-world honor he can never find in the new century, and whose apparent awareness of the vagaries of the human spirit expands exponentially, until, in the third film, he grows almost quiet with wisdom. Fanny’s transformation is the most helpless, the most tethered to time—from swoony stall girl to weathered maman always subject to, yet still caring deeply about, the emotional impulses of men, from Marius to Panisse to her son, Césariot. In a sense, Fanny’s long passage is emblematic of all of ours as we age, allowing imperfect circumstance to benumb the romantic youngster in us, finding fulfillment in struggle, growing into devotions that are earned by more than adolescent passion. The actors, from Raimu as combustive patriarch to Demazis as wilted romantic, all spread out their emotional exposures like ratty wallpaper, carefully and expansively applied as we watch.

This is part of what Pagnol meant by “theater”—a fidelity to the rambling textures of life that did not fit into the bourgeois evening-at-the-theater paradigm. Cinema, of course, had the extra benefit of being both less ephemeral and more widely disseminatable. When Marius proved a hit on the Paris stage in 1929, sync-sound technology was already wending its slow way eastward from the States; The Three Masks, the first all-French talkie, actually shot in sound-equipped British studios, came out in November of that year. The economics of sound’s impact made a Pagnol ascension almost inevitable. Because movies could no longer cross linguistic borders with absolute ease, the Hollywood studios began to set up substudios overseas, at first to produce multiple-language versions of their projects with foreign casts. Of the big outfits, none was as ferocious about pursuing this goal as Paramount, which saw a looming market opportunity and a chance to utilize a growing cache of French-held funds, earned from exhibiting American movies in the twenties but legally required to stay in France. To occupy its newly purchased studio in Joinville, outside Paris, the Paramount team vacuumed up virtually every piece of talent in France, from Jean Renoir to Marcel L’Herbier to Claude Autant-Lara, paying special attention, as the talkie makers were wont to do, to the theater. Marius, then, got signed, with Pagnol calling the shots according to his own stage-cultivated aesthetic.

Perhaps wisely, Pagnol knew his limitations when it came to something as distinctively complex as directing a sound film, and so he sought out proxies. First, Paramount suggested the itinerant Hungarian Alexander Korda, who proved a simpatico collaborator, to direct Marius, but only after Pagnol had completed casting, rehearsing, building the sets, and laying out the staging. Next it was Marc Allégret, an up-and-comer with a handful of credits, to helm Fanny, and that was all the apprentice time Pagnol needed—starting in 1934, he took complete control over his projects, directing five films before rounding out his Marseille Trilogy with César, which had no previous life as a theatrical production. Thus, the three films are subtly different: Korda’s is the moodiest and most focused, with moments of silent poetry (the pan across Marius’s bedroom boat pictures) and a deft eye for comedy (the greatest contract-bridge card-game scene in movie history). Allégret’s is airier, more French, more relaxed, and more attuned to landscape. Finally, Pagnol’s capper is relatively spartan, more trusting of our investment in the characters, and given the twenty-year narrative gap that separates it from the other movies, older-feeling, as if our shared involvement with César, Marius, Fanny, Panisse, and Césariot must slow down with the characters’ aging metabolisms.

Is our world ready to embrace these films’ grungy, discursive, analog humanity today, in our twenty-first-century whirlpool of inputs and uploads, streamings and trendings, accidental memes and cultivated virality? Well, what can be and has been dismissed as their “theatricality” may be, ultimately, their salvation in the whorl of cultural history. That was André Bazin’s position, writing decades after their release in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, where he had long since established a notion of what’s essentially cinematic as being what is captured “objectively,” to which the viewer can react individually, without the dictatorial structures of montage or camera trickery that intends to suggest what is not there. More or less inventing auteurism, and subsequently the yeasty, zeitgeist-y atmosphere that produced the French New Wave, Bazin demanded that the connection between the filmmaker, and his/her presentation of a film’s material, and the viewer be direct and personal—sans sleight of hand or “expressionism” or shortcuts. This relationship was, in fact, close to that found in the theater, and for Bazin theater and cinema were inseparable, two names for the same subjective event, two formally different physical modes for the same dynamic. Respecting, as Bazin put it, “a sense of the ambiguity of reality” in this way began for him with Pagnol, and evolved a path forward that led to Orson Welles, William Wyler, Roberto Rossellini, and Robert Bresson. Critic and Bazin acolyte Richard Roud later saw what seems an obvious and direct line from Pagnol to Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache. As Roud would sum it up, Pagnol “discovered intuitively what Bazin and the nouvelle vague were later to work out theoretically; i.e., that sacrosanct ‘montage’ was not necessarily the essence of the cinema. That what happened during a shot was just as important as the relationship between the shots.”

You see Bazin’s point immediately—watching the trilogy, you are standing beside Pagnol, and you are seeing, without filter or editing direction or postproduction foofaraw, the ambiguous reality of other people, blustery and scheming and vain on the surface, stewing with desire and sacrifice at their core. It’s a foundational moment in the medium’s discovery of self—the capture and communication of human experience, whatever the technology. Interestingly, the films also exemplify an aboriginal aspect of cinema that divides it by definition from the intercourse of theater: namely, the manner in which watching a movie involves observing its actors/characters live out private moments while being absolutely oblivious to you and your presence, due to the distance created by the recording technology. In other words: voyeurism, sanctioned and codified and commodified, in movies generally but with a new fascination in the sound era, when our watching became all the more electrifyingly close to the real, illicit, illegal thing. In Pagnol’s unadorned and patient visualizations, we are in the room, watching, but invisible. Unlike the Soviet montagists, the German expressionists, and other breeds of manipulators looking to control and mold the purpose of our gazing, Pagnol wanted us to be close, to feel the heat of emotional friction, to know these people as they’d be without knowing they weren’t alone. In the theater, we know the actors know we’re there, but on film the communion is genuinely private, and therefore truthful.

Still, Pagnol’s naive formal legacy would barely have survived if it weren’t for the content, the heretofore unimagined pivot toward ethnic and regional veracity. Because Pagnol, a schoolteacher-turned-playwright living far from home in Paris, was essentially mining his own childhood memories—particularly of summers spent in the Provençal village of La Treille, where the Pagnols started renting a cottage when Marcel was nine—the films have the kind of undying intimacy with their cultural source waters that cinema was heralded for at its beginnings, a sort of anthropological archivalism. Le Midi, and specifically Provence, was more than an accent; it was a subnational personality, famous at least as far back as the seventeenth-century uprisings for prickly individualism, lusty nonconformity, and linguistic heterogeneity, with the Occitan dialects alone separating the region from France proper, and from the educated upper classes specifically. Pagnol was in fact born into the late nineteenth-century revival of Provençal language and rural culture powered by the movement of writers called the Félibrige, which was led by the Nobel-winning poet Frédéric Mistral. (In Marius, Panisse lets loose with some Occitan during the card game, which still requires translation for some French viewers.) The significance of Pagnol’s ardent concentration on the neglected substrata of his homeland may be hard to estimate for an outsider, but we could liken it to what might’ve resulted had early American talkies made a pitch-perfect and aesthetically devout effort to commit Ozark or Cajun patois and lifestyle to mainstream narrative celluloid, which they decidedly did not do.

Today, Pagnol’s trilogy represents almost a kind of founding myth from which a sizable chunk of modern French identity has been derived—albeit in nostalgic and elder-generation modes—counting (some scholars have suggested) as a counterrhythm to the country’s dogged cultural progressiveness, and representing now, ironically enough, a fabled all-French national past imperiled by immigration. Go there if you like, as you might with any movie that predates, say, The Battle of Algiers. (Pagnol’s politics were so situational that, in the only film he made during the German occupation, 1941’s La prière aux étailes, he included a snippet of Philippe Pétain speaking on the radio, which after the war he covertly replaced with a bit of a Charles de Gaulle speech.) But it is sensible to remember history, as it has been preserved on film like so many beautiful trilobite fossils, as belonging to its own world, and it’s the grace of cinema like Pagnol’s that offers up that world, seen plainly and fraternally, again for us to visit, however many eons later.

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