The critics of the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s developed the theory of auterism in which the value of a film is determine by how discernible the mark of the author, usually the director, can be sensed. For these critics, many of whom went on to be directors themselves, America had such auteurs in abundance. There was no mistaking a John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock film. In their eyes, the indelible mark of the creator elevated a film from mediocrity to art. We can now debunk this theory many ways. We can point out that film is the most collaborative of artistic endeavors, requiring the skills of cinematographers, writers, actors, costumers, editors and many more. Each of these people leave a mark on the final product. I guess what the Cahistes were lauding were the directors who, even within the restraints of the Hollywood studio system, were able to create something with a personal vision.
They praised these American films by using as a negative example the French directors of the preceding decades, directors who made ‘well-made’ films but did not betray any burning individuality.
In my opinion, there is a lot to be said for excellent craftsmanship. A film can be, I would almost say should be, enjoyable without the audience having to know who made it and why it is identifiable as a film by so-and-so.
Marcel Pagnol, I fear, might have been one of their whipping boys. I did find an article from the Cahiers somewhat praising Pagnol (along with Sacha Guitry) as being filmmakers in spite of themselves. Both men, the article points out, were originally men of the theater, and seemed to view cinema as simply a medium to get a wider audience for their works. There seems to be little doubt that this is the reason why Marcel Pagnol got started in film.
Lest you think of him as merely a hack, you need to know that Pagnol was the first film maker elevated to a fauteuil in the Académie Française – one of only six to date. In fact, he occupied the same fauteuil as Prosper Merimee, author of the novel upon which the opera Carmen was based. Not bad.
I have loved the films of Marcel Pagnol in the same way that I love the novels of Anthony Trollope. They both are works that reveal themselves leisurely, allowing you to spend time with characters who you come to care about more than many people in so-called ‘real life’. The plots are very simple, mostly excuses to allow time to get to know the world the characters inhabit.
The best place to start is with his stupendous Marseilles Trilogy. These are three films: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936). The first two originated as stage plays and were directed by Alexander Korda and Marc Allegret respectively.
Actually shot en plein air on the docks of Marseille, the Trilogy, tells the simplest of stories while introducing us to people that we will never forget. Since so much of the wonder of these films is the story they tell, I feel it would be a betrayal of your future enjoyment for me to spill the smallest bean as to what they are about. Instead I will give you some teasers that I hope will get you to spend six of the happiest hours of your life:
1- Renowned cook Alice Waters named her legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in honor of Honoré Panisse, one of the most lovable characters of the trilogy because she felt that he embodied the joy of life that her restaurant was striving for.
2- The card and bocce games that occur throughout the trilogy are among the funniest scenes in all cinema
3- No less an authority than Orson Welles said that Raimu, who plays César was the greatest actor in the world. I agree.
4- Pierre Fresnay, who plays Marius, is one of the handsomest men ever to grace the screen and Orane Demazis, who plays Fanny, creates one of the most lovable characters ever.
So please try the Marseilles Trilogy. If you are a friend of mine, I have probably shown it to you already, more likely than not in one sitting.
No need to thank me.