MARSEILLE TRILOGY (Pagnol, 1931-1936)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jun 20, 2017
Review by Christopher S. Long
The appeal of Marcel Pagnol's “Marseille Trilogy” is captured vividly by a sequence from the middle film, “Fanny” (1932). The unmarried Fanny (Orane Demazis) confesses to her mother Honorine (Alida Rouffe) that she is pregnant. Honorine explodes with indignation, ordering Fanny to vacate the premises immediately. When Fanny faints, Honorine transitions into the doting mother offering apologies and unconditional support, and the instant Fanny comes to, she re-launches her splenetic attack against the child who has disgraced her. Meanwhile, Aunt Claudine (Milly Mathis) has Fanny's back all the way... until she notes quite matter-of-factly that Fanny can't be the family slut, because Aunt Zoe's already filling that role.
Like many scenes throughout the trilogy, the sequence unfolds slowly and offers multiple shifts in emotional tone, a roller-coaster experience sold by actors gifted enough to convince the audience they have no idea what's coming next or what to feel about it. They need time to sort through the roiling sea of anger, insecurity, and affection, and Pagnol always gives them ample time to do so. For some viewers, this provides a source of endless pleasure; for others, endless, or at least occasional, exasperation.
Pagnol had only quit his job as an English teacher a few earlier before to pursue a career as a playwright, and was bold enough to adapt his hit 1929 play “Marius” as a film just a few years into the talking picture era, in 1931. The talking part was essential for Pagnol, who once described cinema almost exclusively as an extension of theater, and all three films in the trilogy feature nearly wall-to-wall dialogue in just a handful of locations visited over and over.
Set in the southern port of Marseille (you probably guess that by now), “Marius” (directed by a youngster named Alexander Korda, though Pagnol worked with the actors) sets up the basic melodramatic structure of the entire trilogy. Marius and Fanny are in love, and are finally getting around to admitting it. Wedding bells would ring in the near future but Marius (Pierre Fresnay) hides a terrible, shocking secret: he has a shameful, irresistible attraction to... the ocean. He wants to hop the nearest ship and sail to exotic locations around the world and, really, who doesn't dream of huddling for months on end in a tiny wooden cage with dozens of sweaty men and drinking his own urine?
If the love story was the entirety of the “Marseille Trilogy”, it would be a drag because, to be honest, those two crazy kids are the least compelling characters in the cast, and the viewer simply has to accept on faith that they love each other because the source of the mutual attraction is not readily apparent. This sounds like a fatal flaw, but Pagnol's supporting characters are so rich and textured, so warm and funny and charming, each could be the centerpiece of his or her own film.
Marius's father Cesar, owner of the Bar de la Marine on the docks of Marseille, towers above all. Played by the comic actor Raimu, not well-known before the trilogy but destined to become a beloved French icon because of it, Cesar sputters and smiles, gesticulates hysterically before dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, and enjoys life all the more for complaining constantly about it. Raimu is a shameless scene-stealer in the finest sense of the term, and though only the final film in the trilogy, “Cesar” (1936), is named for his character, he is the heart and soul of the entire project. Fernand Charpin is almost as indelible as M. Panisse, who transforms over the course of the trilogy from feckless con artist to respected friend and husband, and the aforementioned Alida Rouffe more than holds her own as Fanny's proud and confident mother Honorine.
Pagnol grew up in Marseille, and his films are attentive to the specific rhythms of daily life in the sun-drenched port city and its local speech patterns though this is, of course, difficult for non-Francophones to pick up on. The specificity of the location has proven to have a universal appeal, as the films were hits both in France and abroad at the time and continue to draw fans today.
Viewers less enchanted by “filmed theater” might be a bit more resistance to the trilogy's charms, but the scope of the project can't help but impress. Over six-and-a-half hours of film covering twenty years of story (“Fanny” picks up immediately where “Marius” leaves off, but “Cesar” jumps ahead two decades), viewers come to know the characters intimately, and to appreciate both their repeated behaviors and the way they change throughout the films. I imagine 19th century readers of serialized novels like “Middlemarch” developing a similar relationship to the characters, constantly tempted to return by the simplest but most powerful appeal of most drama: wanting to find out what happens to everyone next.
“Marius” and “Fanny” are presented in their original 1.19:1 aspect ratios, “Cesar” is in 1.37:1.
From the Criterion booklet: “These new digital restorations were created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original nitrate negatives, 35 mm safety duplicate positives, and 35 mm duplicate negatives at Digimage Classics/Hiventy in Joinville-la-Pont, France. The restorations were undertaken by the Compagnie mediterraneenne de films and the Cinematheque francaise.”
“Fanny” is the weakest of the lot, though it's hard to tell if that has anything to do with the restoration, or rather the filming itself. A few scenes are out of focus, and a few others demonstrate rather soft focus – Pagnol's grandson says that Pagnol was unconcerned with technical qualities, so I don't know. “Marius” and “Cesar” both look much sharper and only marginal signs of damage are visible throughout the trilogy. Though considerable restoration was undertaken, it appears the restorers avoided the urge to buff and polish the image excessively.
The LPCM mono track on all three films is fairly consistent in quality with only the occasional drop off. Dialog is clearly mixed and the score only warbles a bit – there's not too much else to the sound design beyond that. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Each film is housed on its own Blu-ray disc which snaps into its own case. The three separate cases, along with the insert booklet, are tucked into the cardboard slip case for the entire trilogy. The overall set gets the Spine Number 881, with the other three films as 882-884. Each disc includes its own extras.
“Marius” kicks off with an introduction (19 min.) by director Bertrand Tavernier, who credits Francois Truffaut with turning him onto Pagnol in the first place.
Nicolas Pagnol, the writer/director's grandson, speaks at length (2017, 30 min.) about his grandfather's work, and discussing Marcel's relationships with his various collaborators. He emphasizes that Pagnol was an independent filmmaker who worked mostly with friends, despite also working for studios like Paramount.
“Pagnol's Poetic Realism” (2017, 30 min.) is a video essay narrated by Brett Bowles, author of the 2012 book “Marcel Pagnol.” Bowles situates Pagnol's work in the poetic realist movement of the '30s and '40s while noting that Pagnol added more comedy and a sense of social optimism to the usually grimmer, more fatalistic movement.
“Fanny” includes two episodes from the six-part series “Marcel Pagnol: Mourceaux choisis.” This 1973 series for French television covered Pagnol's entire career. The disc includes the excerpts applicable to the “Marseille Trilogy” - all of Episode 3 (58 min.) and about half of Episode 4 (27 min.)
“Cesar” collects older interviews with cast members Orane Denazis (1967, 3 min.), Pierre Fresnay (1956, 6 min.), and Robert Vattier (1976, 11 min.) The disc also includes a short documentary (12 min.) about Marseille that Pagnol shot in 1935, perhaps in tandem with the release of “Cesar.” The disc wraps with a 2-minute piece about the digital restoration of the trilogy.
The thick, square-bound booklet includes an essay by critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts of an introduction that Pagnol wrote for the 1964 publication of his Marseille plays and film scripts.
With fine digital restorations and a substantial sampling of extra features, this Criterion boxed set provides an impressive release for Marcel Pagnol's best-known work.