The Marseille Trilogy: Life Goes to the Movies
With its picturesque Provençal village, florid theatrical dialogue, and cast of familiar southern-French actors, dominated by the formidable Raimu, The Baker’s Wife is classic Marcel Pagnol territory. In 1938, when the film was released, the feted author and playwright was reaching a high point in his cinematic career, after the triumph of his comic Marseille Trilogy: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936). A true auteur who controlled all aspects of his filmmaking, Pagnol was the head of a unique cinematic empire in and around Marseille, his Hollywood on the Mediterranean: a newly refurbished studio with state-of-the art equipment (where scenes from The Baker’s Wife were the first things to be shot), a production and distribution company, and several cinemas. Many Pagnol films—including the trilogy, Topaze (1936), and Heartbeat (1938)—were adaptations of his own writing, in a generally comic vein. By contrast, Jofroi and Angèle in 1934 and Harvest in 1937, based on work by the Provençal writer Jean Giono, introduced a more poetic, harsher rural streak. The Baker’s Wife, inspired by an episode in Giono’s autobiographical 1932 novel Blue Boy, is a perfect combination of these two tendencies.
The core of the film is Giono’s tale of violent passion, set within a mythologized Provence where nature rules the human condition. When Aurélie, the beautiful young wife of a middle-aged baker, runs off with a handsome Italian shepherd, the baker is so distraught that, to the consternation of his customers, he stops making bread. The village joins forces to find the fugitive and bring her back to her forgiving husband, who duly goes back to his pains de campagne. Pagnol steered the story into his own universe, however, lightening its tone considerably and tailoring it for his familiar troupe. Raimu’s charisma and expansive presence turn Giono’s weedy cuckold into the touching yet dignified baker, appropriately named Aimable. Around him, the rotund Fernand Charpin plays the marquis, the local squire whose dubious morals are tolerated by the villagers, incarnated in turn by Charles Blavette, Marcel Maupi, Édouard Delmont, Paul Dullac, Alida Rouffe, and other much-loved character actors. Their southern-accented voices resonate throughout the village, providing as much spectacle as the main story, as does the sparring, in more standard French, between Robert Vattier (the priest) and Robert Bassac (the teacher). Both Giono and Pagnol idealized Provence, but where Giono is somber and lyrical, Pagnol is humorous and performative.
In both novel and film, however, Aurélie stands out as the perturbing element in a patriarchal environment. Giono’s women, including Aurélie, are animalistic in their sensuality, their difference signaled through smell (“They had a very precise odor”). With Pagnol, Aurélie’s otherness, as portrayed by Ginette Leclerc, is cinematic; she was one of the “vamps” of thirties French film. The movie’s Aurélie is “foreign,” and denied that most Pagnolesque quality: speech. She utters barely over a hundred words throughout. Pagnol has been criticized for his “neolithic” sexual politics (as the film historian Jean-Pierre Jeancolas put it), and the world of The Baker’s Wife, at least, is indeed archaic. The marquis’s aristocratic droit du seigneur over his four “nieces” (whom he also calls “ladies of low virtue”), endorsed as amusing by both novel and film, seems offensive today, as is the ribbing of the “old maid” of the village. Most disturbing is the quasi-incestuous pairing of the young Aurélie with the aging baker, who, as he puts it, could be her father, and her return to the marital fold like a penitent child at the end. Yet The Baker’s Wife is so forthright in laying out its contradictions that it somehow rises above its outdated ideology, and its supreme text and performances certainly do so.
Pagnol’s cinematic fame stemmed from his ability to depict the culture of the South, le Midi, within the vocabulary of “filmed theater,” as epitomized by The Marseille Trilogy. The genre—of which he was, with the Parisian Sacha Guitry, one of the most prominent representatives—flourished with the coming of sound in the early thirties, when numerous works written for the stage were adapted to film. For The Baker’s Wife, Pagnol turned Giono’s novelistic material into “theater” on-screen, and then published the script as a play.
Critical orthodoxy has disparaged filmed theater as a visually unambitious form in which language is unduly dominant. Such provocative declarations from Pagnol as “The talkie is the art of recording, of fixing, and of diffusing theater” did not help. Indeed, when the camera moves in The Baker’s Wife, it discreetly follows characters across the frame. Reviews at the time tended toward assessments such as that by Serge Veber, for whom “Pagnol’s films equal profoundly human dialogue . . . He disregards technique with insolent casualness.” Yet Pagnol’s mise-en-scène is far from nonexistent. A surviving form of the “cinema of attractions,” it served the rhetoric and theatricality of the French language rather than flatly recording speech. The critic André Bazin rightly said, “Pagnol is not a playwright converted to the cinema but . . . one of the greatest directors of talking cinema.”
His stress on accented speech was his “brand,” the key marker of his version of regional identity. In an era when the real Provençal dialect was being swept away by standard French, Pagnol’s dialogue regionalized literate French with local elocution and quaintly comic expressions, making them, as Bazin also said, “intrinsic to the text.” In The Baker’s Wife, language and performances thus dictate writing and camera work. A May 1938 report in Pour vous magazine on the shooting of the exteriors in the village of Le Castellet portrays Pagnol with exercise book and fountain pen in hand, fingers covered in ink, as he “rewrites a scene following the actors’ performances during rehearsal.” Throughout, long takes of two or more minutes enable spectators to enjoy the interactions among the actors. From the film’s opening, Pagnol establishes the atmosphere of the village with a series of encounters between inhabitants (more or less absent from Giono’s text), in which the dialogue tells us how village life revolves around nature and sustenance (water, trees, vegetables, bread), as well as clashes of ideas: priest and teacher argue about Joan of Arc and whether human beings belong to the animal kingdom. Having put in place his little world, Pagnol turns his focus to the baker, and the star.
“Raimu’s performance brings to a new height his trademark double register of acting, his ability to move seamlessly between comedy and drama, excess and sobriety, burlesque gestures and understated emotion.”
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