A particular form of extended storytelling is revived in a 4k restoration.
Janus Films, the legendary film distribution company, recently prepared a gorgeous 4k restoration of Marcel Pagnol’s iconic 1930’s Marseille trilogy. The three films, which are Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936), each tell a chapter in the fraught love story of Marius and Fanny. Though he wrote and produced all three, Pagnol only directed the third. Marius was directed by Alexander Korda and Fanny by Marc Allégret.
At the opening of Marius, we meet our central characters. Marius (Pierre Fresnay) works in a bar owned by his father César (Raimu), in front of which Fanny (Orane Demazis) runs a stand selling shellfish. With their bar looking directly onto the harbor, Marius has memorized the sounds of each ship horn, their comings and goings, and knows by heart the routes that the ships travel when they go abroad. Upon seeing a much older wealthy businessman named Panisse (Fernand Charpin) attempt to court Fanny, Marius explodes on him and all but confesses his own love for the girl. Fanny later tearfully confesses her mutual feelings for Marius to her mother Honorine (Alida Rouffle). Against this backdrop of the gorgeous Marseille waterfront and a man who cannot choose between his love for Fanny and his lust for the sea, the story plays out with remarkable wit, humor, and compassion.
At the close of Marius, the titular character is driven to become a sailor by Fanny herself, who cannot bear to see her beloved stay on land if the ocean would make him happy. However, this is only the beginning of the story as Fanny and César each in turn tell the rest of the gorgeous story and its many twists, turns, and tender moments. Pagnol achieves a remarkable feat in developing such incredible personalities over the course of so many hours of screenplay and film. Even the most minor characters give the sense of real men and women who lived and breathed.
Standing apart from its predecessors, César is unusual in a few respects. Appearing a few years later and being the only installment directed by Pagnol himself, it would make sense that the trilogy’s closer would be different. While Fanny begins in the same instant in which Marius ends, the start of César is set twenty years later. For one thing, César tends to garner more laughs than the earlier two films. Though the whole trilogy is humorous throughout, César undeniably wields the most laugh-out-loud moments. A lot can change over the course of the decade and it’s possible that Pagnol felt he needed to make a funnier film to lighten the mood of the latter half of the 1930’s, a time when World War II loomed all too near on the European horizon.
César is also an interesting film for its originality in feminism. In what is probably her greatest scene throughout the trilogy, Demazis delivers an incredible speech to her son in which she defends herself, her womanhood, and choices that she’s made. In vindicating her own rights to have desires, complicated emotions, and to make mistakes, Fanny perhaps unwittingly becomes a symbol of feminism.
With each of the three films lasting over two hours, the trilogy’s incredible length is what lends it its strength. Focusing an extremely tight lens on the intimate lives of a few characters over an extended period of time, and then drawing that period of time out to nearly seven hours of screentime, Pagnol reveals himself to be a master storyteller. The Marseille trilogy is on the level of a novel by Dickens or Tolstoy. By the close of César when characters reminisce on events that happened twenty years earlier, the audience feels it with them on an integral level because they two have invested so much into these characters and grown to know them over time. The tenderness established by this long-form method of storytelling is incomparable.
Standing as a gorgeous monument to the power of a medium and a classical method of cinematic storytelling, the Marseille trilogy is a gorgeous artifact that will be revered, studied, and revisited for years to come.
You can see the films for yourself at New York at Film Forum on January 4th and at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles on January 27th.
Photo credits: The Red List.