During the mid-1920s, Marcel Pagnol at thirty years old was establishing himself as a Parisian playwright. However, late in that decade, he started to pine for his roots in the south of France, having spent his childhood in Aubagne and Marseille, and decided to use it as the setting of a new play about desire and the forces that pull us home and abroad. At around this same time, Pagnol was falling in love with cinema. With some clout as an up-and-coming playwright, he was able to convince the studio to adapt Marius into a film directed by the experienced Hollywood director Alexander Korda, who was about to go on to found London Films. In 1932, one year after the successful release of Marius, Pagnol adapted his sequel Fanny for the screen. Fanny was directed by another young director with decades of work ahead of him, Marc Allégret. This was another box office success, and Pagnol had one more story up his sleeve. In 1936, with a few more films under his belt, Pagnol wrote directly for the screen and then directed himself the final film in the trilogy, César. It was only a decade later that Pagnol adapted this final part for the stage.
These three films that fall into the broad category of poetic realism have just been released in a lovely home video box set by The Criterion Collection, which has quickly become a personal favorite release. I still might not be 100% sure how to define “poetic realism,” but I certainly feel the effects of this movement, or “tendency” as many perhaps correctly label the general trend, in the films from 1930s France. With their deft, poetic handling of hope that peaks out amidst the disillusionment, disappointment, and regret of everyday life, these films delight and sadden me, enriching my own experiences. The stories have become like personal memories. Knowing nothing of their personal lives, I’ve come to love the actors who portray these doomed characters with compassion. The directors are as significant to me as any of my favorite authors. Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (my review here) and The Grand Illusion, Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows and Le Jour se lève — these examples from the movement are some of my favorite films and are often cited in more general best-of lists. I’m excited to add The Marseille Trilogy to my list. I was looking forward to watching it, but I didn’t expect to love it nearly as much as I do.
Though this trilogy was made over the course of five years, they cover much more time in the lives of the three central characters. But we begin Marius with a long amble through sunny day on the docks of a port in Marseille. There’s Marius, leaning against a chair, apron on, taking a moment away from waiting tables and pouring drinks to look at the ships and the sea. Fanny, meanwhile, sits quietly at a table by him, stealing glances his way. She gives his a bit of a hard time for not paying attention to her. We see that he knows the sound of horns from individual ships.
Adding fizz and humor to the scene, Marius’s father César runs around, a force of charming bluster. He and Marius and argue constantly about jobs and responsibilities, but they can laugh at the same time. It’s almost a game, each playing roles, seeing just how they can cleverly outsmart the other.This opening is so easy to watch, so compulsive, and it flows beautifully, like a sunny day on a dock should if one is merely enjoying the scenery.
But it is also busy. Each character has a story line that is developed naturally alongside character in this opening stretch of film. Marius has the most direct and simple desire: he has been landlocked all his life, while right in front of him the ocean spreads an endless horizon. César has the concerns of his establishment and his son, but he’s also trying to secretly (though everyone knows) a woman; he’s been alone for a long time, and the sense is conveyed that he’s trying to conduct this affair discreetly in order to cover his own vulnerability. Fanny is obviously attracted to Marius, but she’s also got to watch after her own security, which might have just arrived with a marriage proposal from the much older Honoré Panisse, whose wife has died recently.
The writing and the acting work together perfectly to delight us with a witty self-deprecating or self-congratulating line of dialogue while also breaking our heart with a furtive glance. Marius and Fanny have clearly been friends for a long time and tease each other almost as if brother and sister, but a genuine love has grown in the sunshine of those day-to-day encounters. But neither thinks the other loves them back.
When Fanny tells Marius she’s about to accept an offer of marriage, Marius is enraged, though he still hides his true feelings. Again, their conversation, with its posturing to account for social conventions, is delightful even while we hope they are smart enough to see underneath the words.
Fortunately, they do:
But this is a French film in the 1930s. Their love story cannot progress without significant hurdles. Or, rather, the film recognizes that even love is not as simple as happily ever after. First, Marius, for all he does love Fanny, still cannot stand being on land. The opportunities he’s been working to unlock for years are finally before him. I won’t spoil much by saying that, since this is a trilogy, you probably can guess how this first part goes. Selfless and truly in love, Fanny recognizes Marius won’t truly be happy with her on land, so she encourages his departure, much the horror of César.
The next two films deal with the long years of consequences from the brief love of Marius and Fanny. The story — of separation, of unexpected pregnancy, and of the woman’s dilemma: love or security? — is a direct inspiration for another of my all-time favorite films, Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (my review here). We come to know these characters so well, and in spite of — no, because of — their foibles we empathize with them, love them, want to comfort them as they seek their desires but cannot escape the pull of these beautiful, complicated relationships in Marseille.
Each film is over two hours long, and the set comes with some excellent features and video essays, making this Criterion release a long-lasting delight even as a first-time watch. I’ll be revisiting it often throughout the years of my life.