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Daniel Auteuil makes his directorial debut with this breathy WWI romance that is pleasing, if not completely dramatically accomplished....
Kino / 109 Minutes / 2011 / Unrated / Street Date: December 24, 2012
The French melodramas Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring were wildly successful upon their releases in the late 1980s, but their influence hasn't maintained any major cultural import (at least not here in the States). To watch these heaving, bustling romances is to be taken away to a certain degree, but their limitations as period piece fables end up being more minor than revelatory.
Daniel Auteuil (graduate of the movies) returns to their dramatic styles and source material with The Well-Digger's Daughter, a WWI-set saga of lust and a changing world that starts up like the decades between Florette and today have been but a blink of an eye. Auteuil uses the occasion of The Well-Digger's Daughter to stage his directorial debut, and he approaches the material with quiet, steady focus, allowing the film's visual beauty and evocative music (from the unbelievably prolific Alexandre Desplat) to coax his viewers into a sense of escapist, amorous thrill.
He plays the well-digger in the movie's title (why not?), and the story of the movie around him revolves around his oldest daughter, Patricia (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who has returned from a stab at fabulous young life in Paris to help dad raise his other five daughters - as a widow, there just aren't that many hours in a day. The well-digger also has aims to coerce Patricia to marry the young man who works with him on his land, but - as fate would have it - her eyes turn toward another's, and then the flames and tragedies of WWI start bullying their way into this family's idyllic rural world.
The Well-Digger's Daughter is a perfectly capable eyelash-flit of a movie - in relying heavily on beautiful photography and lush, grandiose music, even when the movie succumbs to the banality of its soap-opera-level source material (which it does disappointingly often), Auteuil keeps things moving quickly enough that it's easy to forgive these shortcomings. This may not exactly throw the net wide in terms of potential audience numbers, but if you loved Manon of the Spring and wish there were more films like it, turn here with confidence.