The Well-Digger’s Daughter pushes a number of nostalgia buttons at once, most of them pleasing. The film, made in France, is set in rural Provence during World War I, and the landscape is gorgeous in such a sun-dappled, leafy green terroir-from-heaven way that it’s as if you were reliving a sublime vacation by time machine. Since the movie is based on a Marcel Pagnol novel, it also taps memories of the popular full-bodied ’80s art-house hit Jean de Florette (which costarred Daniel Auteuil, who’s the costar and director here). Beyond that, the story is constructed with the kind of clean, square moral and dramatic lines that make it feel sweetly, comfortably old-fashioned in its very quaintness.
An innocent country lass, Patricia (Astrid Bergès Frisbey), becomes pregnant out of wedlock…but the man she slept with (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is no scoundrel. He’s a valiant (and prosperous) French air-force pilot who truly loves her. (It’s someone else’s deception that drives the two apart.) The girl’s father, played by Auteuil (who at 62 acts with the same beady-eyed gopherish energy he did 30 years ago), is a widowed well-digger with a sense of honor that compels him to toss his sinful daughter out, even though he adores her. Such tragedy! Such misunderstanding! Could anything possibly right these wrongs? As surely as a clock’s hands tick forward.
I don’t deny having a certain resistance to a movie like The Well-Digger’s Daughter, but that doesn’t mean the resistance can’t be melted. When I saw Auteuil, as the sternly noble salt-of-the-earth workingman, look into the face of the infant grandson whose very existence supposedly stained his family’s name, I felt the heartstrings tug. Yet the theme of class snobbery — can a modest well-digger’s daughter form a union with an affluent store owner’s son? — really does belong to an outdated art-house era. It’s hard to summon nostalgia for an age when a social battle like that one still needed to be fought. B