Here is such a clear and affecting portrait of human cruelty, in the same league as Sansho the Bailiff. Beautifully filmed in Provence with a series of great French actors, Jean de Florette is a wonderfully engaging portrait of an earnest man being beaten down to literal death by the uncaring qualities of nature and men who are actively out to destroy him.
A young man comes home from life in the military and surprises his uncle with how well carnations grow and sell in their corner of France. The problem is that their plot of land isn’t particularly well suited to the growing of the flower because of the flower’s water requirements. They simply don’t have enough. Their neighbor, though, has a spring that everyone knows about but he refuses to use. They go to the neighbor in an effort to buy the land, but the neighbor is incensed by the mere offer and becomes physically combative. The uncle swings the man around by the legs, hitting his head against a rock, and killing him. He doesn’t have a single demonstration of remorse for the act. In fact, when they leave the scene, it’s unclear if the neighbor is dead or not, and he wants to go back and finish the job for sure.
The property passes through the neighbor’s departed sister to her son, Jean. Knowing that they couldn’t get the property right away, the two find and plug up the spring. A tax collector from the city, he shows up with his family one day with all of their property and crazy ideas about farming and rabbits. The uncle and nephew come up with a simple plan. The nephew will be nice, helpful, and courteous to Jean, so that when his crazy plans fail, he has a friendly face to sell to.
The plans end up succeeding to a certain degree, but the weather is not on Jean’s side. His cistern runs dry at the beginning of a month long drought, and he’s forced to walk his mule for miles to bring water to his plants and rabbits, both of which slowly die away. Jean just cannot get enough water to his farm. And, through it all, there’s a wealth of water just beneath the surface.
I think the key to the movie’s power is the fact that it doesn’t play up the drama of the situation. It treats the events as plainly as possible, allowing performances and the story itself to drive the drama. The closest we get to a melodramatic moment (and it doesn’t rise to that) comes a little more than halfway through the movie. The nephew has been struggling with his role in the scheme, but not enough to actually say anything to Jean. At a particular low moment, we get a very quick shot into the nephew’s head of a field of bright red carnations. It’s that sight that keeps him from breaking and telling Jean about the hidden spring.
Performances are excellent all around (I really like Yves Montand in his role of evil exposition man), and the movie is gorgeous to look at. It’s involving and incredibly well structured. I greatly look forward to the second half.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4