Up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anything about the films of Marcel Pagnol. What a wonderful personal discovery it was when The Criterion Collection released his trio of films, Marius, Fanny, and César, known as The Marseille Trilogy. That trilogy also brought the great French actor Raimu back to my attention. I had seen him a few years before in Julien Duvivier’s 1937 film Un carnet de bal, but I’ll always remember him as César. Recently, The Criterion Collection treated us with another collaboration between Pagnol and Raimu (their last; apparently they had a rough relationship), 1938’s The Baker’s Wife. This film is simple in its premise, but it digs into deep issues with supreme execution.
The Baker’s Wife is based on a story by Jean Giono, an author NYRB Classics has been bringing to my attention with a few releases over the last few years. Though I don’t know a lot of Giono’s works, when I think of him I think of Provence, thanks in large part to his book Hill. The Baker’s Wife takes us to the same region, as a Provençal town welcomes a new baker into their midst.
When we meet Raimu’s baker, a man with the affable name Aimable Castagnier, he has been in town five days and is preparing to sell his first batch of bread to a community that has had bad luck with bakers. While he talks up his bread — he takes no shortcuts — he also talks up his beautiful wife, Aurélie, played by the much younger Ginette Leclerc. Their age difference is deliberate and part of the film. However, as explained in the excellent commentaries by Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles, older bakers with young, unfaithful wives are part of the greater folklore of France. So here we have it: The Baker’s Wife.
We hear about Aurélie’s beauty several minutes before we meet her. Aimable is not just proclaiming his great skill in baking bread; he’s trumpeting his virility. When Pagnol finally does show Aurélie on screen it is from behind. While the host of villagers enters the bakery to sample the first batch of bread they also all turn to see the baker’s wife.
As the stage is set, we meet a handful of people from the town, most of them in some kind of conflict with someone else. Two men argue about trees. The priest and the teacher argue about whether Joan of Arc “heard” voices or “thought she heard” voices. And most people are somewhat scandalized, though perhaps with some admiration, by the marquis, who has four “nieces” at his home. Through dialogue and witty banter, we come to know these characters.
But with almost no dialogue — other than a provocative “come here” — we get to know Aurélie. She is immediately smitten by one of the marquis’s shepherds (Charles Moulin). They don’t need dialogue, I suppose. We can read their language on the screen.
Later that evening, the shepherd comes to serenade Aurélie, though Aimable thinks he’s there to praise him for his bread. After five years of marriage, Aimable doesn’t take much note of Aurélie as a person. They share a bed, but they are not intimate. Later on he even says he has never seen her naked. He simply cannot imagine her sexual side, and, consequently, some of his dialogue as he talks to the men who came with the shepherd, who has gone into the bakery with Aurélie to get some treat, is hilariously ironic.
It’s not long into the film, so I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that Aurélie and the shepherd run away together that very night. The bulk of the film is about the consequences of this indiscretion.
Aimable is the subject of mockery throughout the next day, but when it is clear he won’t be baking bread unless his wife comes back the village kicks into gear to help. Some stay around to support Aimable . . . and learn that in his relationship with Aurélie he is far from the virile man. She never swooned for him (understandably). He, for his part, still cannot understand why she’d run away, since he never saw her overcome with any kind of passion.
In the meantime, villagers work together, iron out some of their differences, and seek to bring equilibrium back to the community. The best of the bunch, for me, was the priest and the teacher.
This film is delightful. The acting is tremendous — Raimu is a master. The dialogue is witty and slick. The characters are lovable. But the film is also problematic. Aurélie’s story is told only through her husband. Yes, Aimable is presented as a flawed husband, one she might want to get away from, we understand. But that isn’t quite enough to say Leclerc wasn’t placed in the role of a naive girl who hasn’t learned her place yet.
In his commentaries Bowles goes over this criticism, and I think his insights are invaluable. He acknowledges the shortcomings while looking at the historical reasons this story was being told. He also looks closely at the various ways Aimable is presented as at fault. This story wouldn’t pass muster today from anyone critiquing gender portrayals, but in context the story’s strengths are allowed to shine through. As I said, the film is problematic, but it is also tremendous.