The Baker’s Wife: Bread, Love, and a Trophy Wife

With its picturesque Provençal village, florid theatrical dialogue, and cast of familiar southern-French actors, dominated by the formidable Raimu, The Baker’s Wife is classic Marcel Pagnol territory. In 1938, when the film was released, the feted author and playwright was reaching a high point in his cinematic career, after the triumph of his comic Marseille Trilogy: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936). A true auteur who controlled all aspects of his filmmaking, Pagnol was the head of a unique cinematic empire in and around Marseille, his Hollywood on the Mediterranean: a newly refurbished studio with state-of-the art equipment (where scenes from The Baker’s Wife were the first things to be shot), a production and distribution company, and several cinemas. Many Pagnol films—including the trilogy, Topaze (1936), and Heartbeat (1938)—were adaptations of his own writing, in a generally comic vein. By contrast, Jofroi and Angèle in 1934 and Harvest in 1937, based on work by the Provençal writer Jean Giono, introduced a more poetic, harsher rural streak. The Baker’s Wife, inspired by an episode in Giono’s autobiographical 1932 novel Blue Boy, is a perfect combination of these two tendencies.

The core of the film is Giono’s tale of violent passion, set within a mythologized Provence where nature rules the human condition. When Aurélie, the beautiful young wife of a middle-aged baker, runs off with a handsome Italian shepherd, the baker is so distraught that, to the consternation of his customers, he stops making bread. The village joins forces to find the fugitive and bring her back to her forgiving husband, who duly goes back to his pains de campagne. Pagnol steered the story into his own universe, however, lightening its tone considerably and tailoring it for his familiar troupe. Raimu’s charisma and expansive presence turn Giono’s weedy cuckold into the touching yet dignified baker, appropriately named Aimable. Around him, the rotund Fernand Charpin plays the marquis, the local squire whose dubious morals are tolerated by the villagers, incarnated in turn by Charles Blavette, Marcel Maupi, Édouard Delmont, Paul Dullac, Alida Rouffe, and other much-loved character actors. Their southern-accented voices resonate throughout the village, providing as much spectacle as the main story, as does the sparring, in more standard French, between Robert Vattier (the priest) and Robert Bassac (the teacher). Both Giono and Pagnol idealized Provence, but where Giono is somber and lyrical, Pagnol is humorous and performative.

In both novel and film, however, Aurélie stands out as the perturbing element in a patriarchal environment. Giono’s women, including Aurélie, are animalistic in their sensuality, their difference signaled through smell (“They had a very precise odor”). With Pagnol, Aurélie’s otherness, as portrayed by Ginette Leclerc, is cinematic; she was one of the “vamps” of thirties French film. The movie’s Aurélie is “foreign,” and denied that most Pagnolesque quality: speech. She utters barely over a hundred words throughout. Pagnol has been criticized for his “neolithic” sexual politics (as the film historian Jean-Pierre Jeancolas put it), and the world of The Baker’s Wife, at least, is indeed archaic. The marquis’s aristocratic droit du seigneur over his four “nieces” (whom he also calls “ladies of low virtue”), endorsed as amusing by both novel and film, seems offensive today, as is the ribbing of the “old maid” of the village. Most disturbing is the quasi-incestuous pairing of the young Aurélie with the aging baker, who, as he puts it, could be her father, and her return to the marital fold like a penitent child at the end. Yet The Baker’s Wife is so forthright in laying out its contradictions that it somehow rises above its outdated ideology, and its supreme text and performances certainly do so.

Pagnol’s cinematic fame stemmed from his ability to depict the culture of the South, le Midi, within the vocabulary of “filmed theater,” as epitomized by The Marseille Trilogy. The genre—of which he was, with the Parisian Sacha Guitry, one of the most prominent representatives—flourished with the coming of sound in the early thirties, when numerous works written for the stage were adapted to film. For The Baker’s Wife, Pagnol turned Giono’s novelistic material into “theater” on-screen, and then published the script as a play.

Critical orthodoxy has disparaged filmed theater as a visually unambitious form in which language is unduly dominant. Such provocative declarations from Pagnol as “The talkie is the art of recording, of fixing, and of diffusing theater” did not help. Indeed, when the camera moves in The Baker’s Wife, it discreetly follows characters across the frame. Reviews at the time tended toward assessments such as that by Serge Veber, for whom “Pagnol’s films equal profoundly human dialogue . . . He disregards technique with insolent casualness.” Yet Pagnol’s mise-en-scène is far from nonexistent. A surviving form of the “cinema of attractions,” it served the rhetoric and theatricality of the French language rather than flatly recording speech. The critic André Bazin rightly said, “Pagnol is not a playwright converted to the cinema but . . . one of the greatest directors of talking cinema.”

His stress on accented speech was his “brand,” the key marker of his version of regional identity. In an era when the real Provençal dialect was being swept away by standard French, Pagnol’s dialogue regionalized literate French with local elocution and quaintly comic expressions, making them, as Bazin also said, “intrinsic to the text.” In The Baker’s Wife, language and performances thus dictate writing and camera work. A May 1938 report in Pour vous magazine on the shooting of the exteriors in the village of Le Castellet portrays Pagnol with exercise book and fountain pen in hand, fingers covered in ink, as he “rewrites a scene following the actors’ performances during rehearsal.” Throughout, long takes of two or more minutes enable spectators to enjoy the interactions among the actors. From the film’s opening, Pagnol establishes the atmosphere of the village with a series of encounters between inhabitants (more or less absent from Giono’s text), in which the dialogue tells us how village life revolves around nature and sustenance (water, trees, vegetables, bread), as well as clashes of ideas: priest and teacher argue about Joan of Arc and whether human beings belong to the animal kingdom. Having put in place his little world, Pagnol turns his focus to the baker, and the star.

“Raimu’s performance brings to a new height his trademark double register of acting, his ability to move seamlessly between comedy and drama, excess and sobriety, burlesque gestures and understated emotion.”

Today, the role of Aimable seems obviously designed for Raimu. An actor well-known from the stages of Toulon and Marseille, he had achieved huge cinematic fame as César, the patriarch who dominates The Marseille Trilogy. But at the time of planning The Baker’s Wife, Raimu and Pagnol’s volatile relationship had reached a breaking point, and the director offered the role to Maupi, and then to Henri Poupon, both second-tier character actors. After some maneuvering and Leclerc’s intervention, Raimu eventually accepted the part that came to define his career. The star apparently spent time with his own local baker, to observe him at work. Although the plot rarely requires that Aimable be shown actually making bread, his relaxed body language around the oven and the kneading trough speak of familiarity with the activities of the profession.

But Raimu’s performance is remarkable especially for bringing to a new height his trademark double register of acting, his ability to move seamlessly between comedy and drama, excess and sobriety, burlesque gestures and understated emotion—in other words between a theatrical and a cinematic acting vocabulary. One remarkable example is the long scene in the middle of the film in which he gets drunk in front of the whole village. There, in a tour-de-force performance, Raimu alternates moments of despondency with bravado and gesticulation, including a preposterous parody of Italian singing and a moment when he collapses and softly cries, “Why did she leave?” before immediately getting up and starting to sing again at the top of his voice. All through the scene he tries, ineffectually, to roll a cigarette, ending up with just the paper in his mouth, a brilliant yet inconspicuous leitmotif that naturalizes his despair. Even in the stereotypical roles of cuckold and drunkard, Raimu is believable and moving. Unsurprisingly, such range and subtlety are not available to the secondary characters, who all operate within one comic register. More problematically, neither are they afforded to the central female character, Aurélie, for she inhabits one domain, that of the female, and her representative, the star Leclerc, is given limited screen time.

Aurélie departs strikingly from Pagnol’s dominant female figure, the fallen woman. In Fanny, Angèle, and The Well-Digger’s Daughter (1940), a young woman transgresses by becoming pregnant out of wedlock and is condemned, but eventually pardoned through marriage. The patriarchs, while domineering, also appear as weak, symbolically castrated figures. Furthermore, not only are the women presented as victims (of circumstances or of predatory men) but their points of view are considered sympathetically. Within an archaic world in which women’s sexuality was equated with reproduction, Pagnol’s worldview could appear surprisingly modern. Aurélie the temptress departs from this configuration because she is detached from maternity. Instead, she fits a different set of female stereotypes, from the vamp to the lost girl, via the witch.

The Aimable-Aurélie coupling follows a recurrent narrative within French cinema, that of the quasi-incestuous (symbolic) father-daughter pair that reproduces unbalanced gender power relations. A staple of French theater and fairy tales, this dynamic found its way into a wide range of thirties films. In the trilogy, Fanny marries the elderly Panisse for security; Fanny’s mother, while relieved, predicts problems in the bedroom. The Baker’s Wife, too, states that the old man–young woman couple is “ill-assorted,” and thus the catastrophe that befalls Aimable is foretold. Yet the film insistently creates sympathy for him, first of all through Raimu’s affecting performance. In Giono’s story, Aurélie calls her feeble husband “pitiful,” while in the film she seems mostly indifferent to him. Raimu’s Aimable is downcast at times, but he is never pitiful. Meanwhile, the (male) villagers act as the spectator’s proxy in rallying around him. The rescue party dispatched to retrieve Aurélie from her love nest, which includes the priest on the shoulders of the teacher (an amusing vignette that originates in Giono), embodies the two sides of patriarchal authority—clerical and secular—and further legitimizes Aimable’s point of view. In Giono’s novel, once Aurélie has returned to the fold, the shepherd comes back to fight the men of the village and defy them by dancing with “their” women. His sexual threat is still palpable, further undermining the weak baker. In the film, the shepherd is a coward who flees at the sight of the priest, prompting the dismayed Aurélie to cry, “You idiot!” The wayward wife’s submission to her husband’s authority is final.

The film ends with the reunion of the contrite Aurélie and the forgiving Aimable, a scene invented by Pagnol. But as he sits his tearful wife down for a meal with tender magnanimity, Aimable takes out his hidden feelings on Pomponette, his she-cat, for having abandoned her male companion, Pompon. This scene is a justly celebrated instance of Raimu’s acting; he veers in a split second from embracing Aurélie in a fatherly way (as she cradles the heart-shaped bun he has baked for her) to hurling obscene abuse at Pomponette as she slinks back home: “Tart! Slut! Piece of filth!” Transparently (if wittily) signifying masculine rule, the moment also underlines the gendered nature of language mastery. The scarcity of Aurélie’s dialogue throughout the film is usually attributed to the fact that Pagnol had thought of Joan Crawford for the role. Regardless, the silencing of Aurélie is—in an extreme way—in line with Pagnol’s oral landscape. In the trilogy, Orane Demazis as Fanny and other, more marginal actresses do speak, yet the most flamboyant exchanges, the best-remembered moments, are always the province of the men, as in The Baker’s Wife.

The withholding of language from Aurélie also removes her from the circuit of social interaction. A familiar presence in French theater and cinema (by 1938, she had made forty films), Leclerc specialized in sassy seductresses, her elocution situating her within a Parisian working-class register. In The Baker’s Wife, the few words she utters, without the slightest trace of the local accent, place her outside the community. Whereas the socially determined standard French of the teacher and the priest marks their difference in class terms, Aurélie’s alien status is purely gendered. The other women in the film, apart from the fleetingly seen young waitress at the café, are dowdy older wives or the old maid, who are mocked for their lack of sexuality. The baker’s wife, on the contrary, is equated with her sexuality, and for it branded as a threat to the village. Her sexual aura inflames not just the shepherd but the villagers as a whole, and provokes a carnivalesque inversion of values: the baker stops working, starts drinking, and commits blasphemy; men run out of control (two of them so excited by the mere thought of Aurélie that they head to the city to visit prostitutes). Aurélie’s departure signifies the symbolic death of the village, as the baker stops making bread. She becomes a “witch,” a woman with too much power—hence it is the priest who must retrieve her. In the logic of Carnival, order is restored at the end, symbolized by the baker and his wife lighting the oven together, perhaps hinting at her future role as mother. Ever present and yet absent, Aurélie has no subjectivity; she functions as an object of exchange and consumption between men, like the bread.

If Aurélie is literally absent from the screen for long periods, Leclerc, fitting her star persona, makes great visual impact as a provocatively sexy figure when she does appear. Almost her first words are to order the shepherd to come nearer, and she rubs her face against his torso. With her eye makeup, glossy lipstick, modern haircut, and pretty clothes, she stands out among the shabby villagers, especially Aimable, with his disheveled hair and trousers held together with string. Aurélie’s ostentatious beauty is here to signal Aimable’s status: unlike the other men in the village, he has a young and beautiful wife. Signifying luxury, Aurélie is the ultimate status symbol for the baker, his trophy wife.

The Baker’s Wife proved a pivotal film in Pagnol’s career. It marked the end of his productive but fraught four-year collaboration with Giono. It was also his first major film to bring to the screen the warm Provençal village community that came to define his later work. With The Baker’s Wife, Pagnol not only showcased memorable performances by his regular troupe of actors but also proved his ability to walk the line between broad comedy and emotional nuance, outdated social relations and modernity, universal themes and picturesque locality.