dir: Yves Robert
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These two films are really one big film, in the same way that Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources are really one long film. In common with those other flicks, these are also set in the same area of France, being Provence. More intimately, they also share the same author, being Marcel Pagnol.
In this instance, these movies are based on Pagnol’s own life in the early part of the 20th century, in Marseilles and the hills nearby. As such, since real life rarely has the dramatic consistency and neatness of well-written drama, these flicks have a very different dynamic to the masterpieces that start with Jean de Florette. They share the same lush visuals, having been filmed in the same region, but completely different stories, themes, ideas and resolutions.
In some ways, enjoyable ways, My Father’s Glory is one of the truly most bourgeois films ever committed to celluloid. It focuses on the low-key meanderings of a family from 1900 onwards, seen through the eyes of the eldest son Marcel (Julien Ciamaca). That shouldn’t be seen as a criticism, just a description of the time, the place and the family involved.
The patriarch of the family, Joseph (Phillipe Caubere) is a school teacher, and mostly a decent and humble man. He’s not much of a drinker, gambler or wifebeater, which is just lovely. His wife Augustine (Nathalie Roussell) is happy to devote herself to doting on him and their ever-expanding family. She wears frilly outfits and makes enough food to serve an army and never complains about anything, ever, the blessed saint.
Augustine has a spinster sister Rose (Therese Liotard), who won’t be a spinster for long, at least if Marcel has anything to do with it. She becomes attached to a fat bastard called Jules (Didier Pain), who irks patriarchal secular humanist Joseph because he’s a religious man. Through Uncle Jules the families get access to a house in the hilly region between Aubergne and Aix. And thus begins the main character’s love affair with the region.
As a child, Marcel is fairly happy-go-lucky, but, being a child, and a French child at that, he has concerns, hopes, fears and more fears about stuff that wouldn’t cross most of our minds. The Glory of the title comes from the son’s obsession, an understandable one, with having his dad be the big man in front of his new uncle. If anything, the son develops a pathological fixation on his father’s status in this alpha dog eat beta dog society.
The arid hills open up, for all the members of the families, a new vista on life, and as the film’s progress, they spend more and more time in the region, as if the working week is in retreat, and their real life now occurs during the holidays.
Marcel makes friends with a local hillbilly kid, Lili (Joris Molinas), who, despite the name, is a boy. Lili and Marcel bond, and Lili teaches Marcel all about the mountain life, though there are no Deliverance-type elements in the offing.
He teaches him about setting traps for birds (Lili makes his living from poaching), the locations for natural springs (which the hick locals jealously guard), and just to appreciate the place for what it is.
Seeing as they don’t have televisions yet due to their not having been invented, the various peoples need hobbies. The womenfolk are perpetually busy preparing food all the time, so they’re looked after, but the men folk need games like lawn bowls and hunting to keep themselves amused. Uncle Jules makes mention of the game available in the region, and refers almost mystically to the bartavelle: the king of partridges. Joseph and Uncle Jules are going out for some fun. To Marcel it becomes a battle for life and death.
Marcel’s view of his father is wrapped up entirely in this idea that Joseph cannot fail in front of Jules. Such a failure threatens to tear Marcel’s soul apart as he contemplates the life-ending humiliation of it.
He follows them with the intention of helping his father out unseen, almost, and he gets lost, needless to say. In the end, though, he is instrumental in getting his dad to achieve the glory of the title.
And what a glory :) It seems almost absurd to see what grand achievement brings such joy to all the participants involved. Earlier on in the film, Joseph is shown a photo of and by one of his fellow teachers posing next to a caught fish. He ridicules the teacher, and warns his son that such vanity is really unbecoming in a man.
Of course, when the situation is reversed down the track, he is such a shameless braggart that you can’t help but have a big ol’ smile pasted across your face watching him swagger through the town, repeating the story of his grand achievement.
It really is quite a charming experience spending time with this family. It’s not a film you watch for a plot or for the exciting happenings that, um, happen. You watch it to experience a slice of the author’s life, and of a time and place, which these films achieve beautifully through the rich performances and setting
The first film covers their first hallowed summer in the region: My Mother’s Castle covers a greater length of time following on from it. Not content with spending a few weeks a year in the hills, the family decides to start travelling there every weekend. The journey is not an easy one, since there’s a lot of stuff to carry, and a fair distance to cover. They catch a tram car to the end of the line, and then hike for over four hours to get there. Though there is a straight route to the house, it would mean that they would have to cross private properties to cut their travel time down to 30 minutes after the tram.
Joseph prides himself on his adherence to regulations and rules, being the perfect little public servant, so that’s a no-go at first. But a former student of his presents him with an opportunity in the form of a key that would give them access to a canal path leading straight to their home.
It proves too tempting for the family, especially since mother Augustine seems to be a bit under the weather some of the time. The properties they cross are those of the mega-wealthy or aristocrats, or both, none of whom, they assume, would be that happy to see them. Each property and chateau has its own issues, but the one from which the film derives its title presents the greatest challenge.
They are told that one of the properties has a lunatic guard with a hideous giant dog called Masher, and every time the family is to cross the threshold, Augustine becomes terrified. In Marcel’s eyes this fear infects his mother’s soul, and taints their appreciation of the magical hills, trapped as she is forever before the dark door to this castle.
Marcel also gets a swing at first love around this time, falling in love with an insane girl, Isabelle (Julie Timmerman) who treats him like a dog. That’s first love for you. In fact, that’s first, following and last love as well. He thinks she’s some kind of aristocrat, but she’s really just a crazy brat with screwed up parents. She doesn’t stick around long enough for Marcel to go through puberty, so it’s not really that much of a coming of age story, at least not literally.
Complications arise through one of their surreptitious stealth missions trying to get where they need to go, and the happy stability of the family is threatened! Who knows whether everything will turn out okay, or whether the children will be sold into slavery, Augustine has to start walking the streets and Joseph starts washing people’s windscreens for money.
In contrast to the first film, Castle has a different feel to it. The first film is joyous and magical in its child-like exuberance, but with the second film we notice the change in everything. It is, we sense in many ways, the literal and symbolic ending of Marcel’s childhood. He is the same boy, but experience and the circle of life will ensure that he cannot stay trapped like an insect in amber in this perfect idyllic time. And we find out that none of the other characters get to remain in amber either.
The saga ends on bittersweet notes, and we share in the author’s longing for this beautiful time and place, but all that longing cannot change the fact that neither he nor we can never go back, which makes it all the more precious.
I don’t know if they’re great films, and if I was feeling cynical I’d say that the first film is a better film than the second, but really, both need each other to give a complete story. It is a beautiful production, infinitely sweet like the candy Uncle Jules sneaks to the kids, as breathtaking visually as the hills where it is set, and immaculately filmed in a way that appreciates the story, the characters and the place in time, with time and care
It’s all still so incredibly bourgeois that it might make you erupt in an explosion of doily-tearing, teapot upending, lace curtain rending fury. And it’s so very, very French, so be warned.
10 times I wonder what Joseph was saying by hanging the bartavelles off of his belt out of 10
“I’d caught my superman in the act of being human. And I loved him all the more for it.” – My Father’s Glory.