Review: Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources

by Charlotte Dovey
Thomas Gainsborough [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Landscape with Stream and Weir”

Shakespeare wrote, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children” (The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene V).  In many ways, we must pay for our parents’ mistakes, even if it means that we do that by reliving them, but it also happens that harms caused by one generation can be healed or transformed into something else with the next.  Both of these scenarios happen in the pair of films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (1986), directed by Claude Berri. 

Jean de Florette has several transformations in it; the city tax collector turns farmer, the uncle substitutes his nephew for a son and heir, thus transforming him into that role, the transformation of bachelor into husband with marriage, and birth transforming someone into a parent and a fetus into a child.  It is also about transforming through restoration; restoring farms to their past glory, restoring past relationships, restoring lost fortunes.  The pair of films show that healing is possible when people forgive.

Jean de Florette is also about the destruction that comes from trying to forcibly transform something or someone against its nature.  Despite Ugolin’s plot having been used to grow vegetables and grapes, he tries to grow carnations on land that does not have sufficient water, rather than amend his plans according to the land’s suitability.  Thus, he allows his uncle César (also called Papet) to convince him to steal Jean’s land and gain access to the spring.  The pair transform Jean’s farm from a fertile one into a desolate wasteland by secretly blocking the spring and hiding its location.  Ugolin and his uncle also destroy Jean’s reputation by making him out to be something that he is not; a stranger with no ties to the land or the people by concealing that his mother, a villager, owned the house.  Ugolin and his uncle also destroy when they unblock the spring and Manon sees and hears what they have done; they transform her grief for her father’s loss into a deep-seated and enduring rage that in turn transforms her and her future into one of solitude and hatred.

While Ugolin and Papet are unjust, Jean is not altogether blameless; he is too innocent in trusting unworthy people; in his own mind transforming them from what they actually are into his own idea of them.  Jean wants to raise rabbits, and his own land would be suitable except that he cannot find the blocked and hidden spring.  His own fault in this regard is that he unwisely tries to make his farm into the image of a tax collection operation; he plans according to actuarial tables and manuals rather than by established farming practices based on experience.  Since he has spent his money rashly, he does not hire an experienced dowser but rather tries to find water himself by reading more manuals.  Hence, he also tries to force the land open by dynamite to uncover water that is not there, destroying both the land and himself, as the falling debris kills him.      

Papet baptisizes Ugolin with the spring, but this baptism is not one of transforming sin into purity, but rather one that signifies submerging oneself in a great injustice, even evil.  One could take Jean de Florette on its own and come away with the somewhat trite message that life is unjust because people are unjust (or something equally facile).  However, the story does not end with the death of one generation; the father’s story is the beginning, the background, and to understand it in context requires the stories of the preceding and following generations.  Manon des Sources extends Manon’s father’s history, but Manon alters that history and makes it uniquely hers.  Yet, she also weaves it into those of others, such as her own child, giving further life to her own father in the form of her progeny that are also, by extension, his.  Ugolin’s baptism that ends the film also designates a new beginning, one that will ultimately restore the farm back to its rightful heiress, Manon.

Manon des Sources opens with the new school teacher arriving in town, Manon’s future husband, a man who has similar interests to her father.  The next shot is of the spring irrigating carnations, indicating continuation (from the earlier story) but since the field is much larger than it had been, it signals that a good deal of time has passed, about ten years, since Jean’s death and Ugolin’s nefarious baptism.

Manon and Ugolin mirror each other’s response to love; Ugolin, perched high above on a cliff edge, sees Manon, who was unaware of him, and he falls in love.  Manon, likewise, first sees the schoolteacher, also unaware, when she hides up a tree and looks down on him.  Ugolin, however, falls in love with her beauty, while she falls in love with the schoolteacher’s kindness, as he shares his lunch with her animals.  Ugolin and Manon are deeply connected through such common traits and yet undiscovered family history, but also through the death of Jean, by Ugolin’s love and Manon’s hatred, and because they are second cousins.

When Papet presses Ugolin to marry and produce a Soubeyran heir, Papet tells him that they were once a respected family, but Ugolin notes with bitterness that “things change.”  Papet ascribes their downfall to the “fault of [their] elders;” inbreeding caused madness and several suicides, including that of Ugolin’s father.  He wants Ugolin to marry to continue the family and return it to its former state (he wants Ugolin to heal the family reputation and health).  Unbeknownst to any of them, Ugolin falls in love with his second cousin, in essence repeating the faults of his ancestors.

In Manon’s search for revenge against Ugolin and the villagers who knew about the spring but failed to tell Jean, she inadvertently finds the source of the spring and the town’s reservoir.  She blocks it up.  When their town runs dry, the villagers know that they are being punished (though they think by God rather than by a clever young woman) for their part of the deception and Jean’s death, so conclude that it has become their business after all – and only at this late point they confess.  Ugolin commits suicide, just as his father had done. 

The schoolteacher helps Manon overcome her rage by seeing that her father would have forgiven them, and together they unblock the spring.  With her forgiveness comes her own healing.  She moves on with her life and marries and becomes pregnant, producing a Soubeyran heir, and restoring her father’s legacy to its rightful place.

Francis Coates Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Mother and daughter reading”

Papet learns that Jean was his own son and admits that out of spite he had unwittingly tormented his own son to death.  Nevertheless, he notes that Jean would have forgiven him, even defended him.  He dies, willing his land and fortune to Manon, with Florette’s comb in his hand and a rosary.  Because he asks for God’s forgiveness and Manon’s, he dies peacefully in the night, another type of healing.

As Aristotle noted, children do not fulfil their purpose of replacing their parents until those parents die; until that time, they are merely potentially replacing those parents.  In these films, we see that this is true even with more distant generations.

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

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