Shallow Trench: Auteuil’s Debut a Bland Mush
Certainly one of the most prolific performers to come out of France over the past few decades, Daniel Auteuil’s laboriously banal directorial debut, The Well Digger’s Daughter, which is based on fellow countryman and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol’s novel, doesn’t quite reach the same level of competence as he often does in front of the camera. Old-fashioned in all senses of what that phrase implies, Auteuil’s efforts with this Pagnol adaptation have him currently filming Pagnol’s Marseillaise trilogy. But for those wishing for something more than exquisitely shot pastoral sequences, this clichéd, nonchalant, and antiquated snoozer will disappoint. This humdrum Thomas Hardy narrative knock-off is as memorable as the holes its main character digs in the ground.
In pre-world War II France, a simple widower, Pascal Amoretti (Daniel Auteuil), must support several daughters on his own as a well-digger. One of his daughters, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), spent most of her youth with a rich woman in Paris, as the Amorettis gave her up for adoption (of sorts) to have a better life. But when the rich old lady died, Patricia was forced to return to provincial life, though now perfectly mannered, coiffed, beautiful, and saintly. The blue collar Amoretti has always regretted never having a son, since women don’t even have a name for themselves until they’re married. Only the name of a man matters. Eager to marry his prized daughter off to a fellow working man, Amoretti jumps on his middle-aged well digger friend, Felipe’s (Kad Merad) wishes to court the young woman. However, Patricia has recently set her sights on the rich general store owner’s son, Jacques (Nicholas Duvauchelle), also an accomplished pilot in France’s military. An inevitable tryst, the inevitable war, and inevitably, his parents’ prejudices (Sabine Azema and Jean-Pierre Darroussin) against the lower working classes lead to Amoretti disowning his pregnant daughter, sending her to live with his sister, also a fallen woman. The remainder of the film circles around news of Jacques’ death, then the possibility that the news was false, one reconciliation, another reconciliation, and a better than anyone could ever have hoped for ever in a million years finale.
There are some gorgeously lush landscapes photographed in The Well Digger’s Daughter, which we can all thank the excellent Jean-Francois Robin for (DP for Betty Blue, 1986). However, there’s such a conventional and unimaginative approach to this well-tread material it’s hard to have any feelings for any of the characters. Auteuil, who you might assume would be more than able bodied as he cast himself as the well digger, never manages to be more than an ignorant caricature, a dummy that says lines like “A motorbike doesn’t look like much, but it can carry off a family’s happiness” after learning Jacques picked up Patricia on one. And the rather blank and unenthusiastic Astrid Berges-Frisbey never quite manages to register as engaging. Sabine Azema gets to have a little fun in, albeit, over the top, bitch mode, and Nicholas Duvauchelle, as usual, has a hard time appearing to be anything but malevolent and smarmy. But it is Auteuil’s absolute insistence on avoiding all the sordid details from surfacing that help generate a severely censored tone throughout. We can’t even tell that anything sexual happened between the well digger’s daughter and the general store owner’s son until Patricia announces she’s pregnant. Not even a doctor assisted abortion holds any tragic weight in this muted effort, a tale laced with offensive elements but curiously calibrated to avoid offending the most conservative of crowds. Says the patriarchal misogynist of his well bred daughter, “I love her now as much as a son. I know it sounds silly, but it’s true.” Sadly, even this slighted, cockamamie love can’t be shared for this dullard of a film. Let’s hope his Pagnol trilogy isn’t completely declawed from the messiness of life’s contrivances as well. This is one daughter that belongs at the bottom of one of the holes her father digs.