Like other Pagnol films, novels, and plays, The Baker's Wife is principally concerned with the eccentricities of rural life in southern France, concerns that, for the most part, are pretty universal. The long film (nearly two-hours-fifteen minutes) never wears out its welcome, partly because Raimu is so delightful to watch, and because the screenplay moves in unexpected directions. Criterion's Blu-ray, from a 4K restoration, looks great, and the disc includes some pleasant, enlightening extra features.
The actual story is slight, one that could leisurely have been told in a movie half its length. Pagnol, however, clearly loved these characters, fleshing them out in colorful, amusing moments adding to the picture's overall impact.
In a small village in the south of France, a new baker, Aimable (Raimu) and his much younger, voluptuous wife, Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc), are welcomed by the local townsfolk, especially after they've tasted Aimable's delicious bread.
However, late one night, Aurélie slips away with a new lover, a darkly handsome shepherd employed by the Marquis (Fernand Charpin), the village figurehead. Finding her gone the next morning, Aimable is beside himself with worry, frantically scouring the village. Locals, concerned that Aimable isn't manning his oven, join the search, but it's soon apparent to everyone that she's run off.
Everyone, that is, except for Aimable, who refuses to accept the obvious, insisting that she's only gone to visit her mother. Increasingly desperate and inconsolable, the baker, unaccustomed to drink, gets hammered downing apéritifs, making a scene in front of the entire village, whose residents resolve to find the wayward wife.
The first part of the picture, establishing the characters and setting, amused this reviewer, who lives in a village very much like that in the film. The movie may have been made 80 years ago in France, and I may live in a village on the other side of the planet, in rural Japan, but the characters and attitudes are unmistakably similar. Two refuse to speak to one another over a conflict so far-flung in the past nobody even remembers what it initially was all about. A schoolteacher (Robert Bassac) and priest (Robert Vattier) argue over the finer points of religion and education. The wealthy Marquis keeps "nieces" at his estate that are clearly actually mistresses, but the priest is too dependent upon his financial support to make much of a fuss.
What really sells the film, however, is Raimu's character and his performance. Unlike the mousy, diminutive Aimable of the novel, Raimu is big and barrel-chested, an intimidating presence. Yet the character is unfailingly kind and sweet-hearted to everyone, generous with his baked goods and, well, amiable. In one especially hilarious scene, the shepherd blatantly turns up outside their bedroom window to serenade her. But Aimable is so oblivious to what's really happening he's convinced the shepherd is singing out of gratitude for Aimable's delicious bread.
When Aurélie runs off, his sweet nature prevents him from suspecting the worst. Surely, she must have gone to mass he insists, and goes looking for here there. Resolutely working-class and a couple of decades older than she, he's anything but handsome: sleeveless, flour-stained shirt, trousers crudely tied with a rope, disheveled hair, given to taking naps in his kneading trough, etc. Aimable may be a cuckold, but so big-hearted is he that the villagers mostly pity the poor, faultless man.
They, of course, are equally concerned about their daily bread, and scour the countryside en masse in search of the unfaithful wife. What happens at the end is unexpected on several fronts. I won't reveal how so, except to say that what happens is quite touching and not sentimental because, though unexpected, it's believable and, more to the point, truthful. It also allows the film audience to see a side of Aimable few would have anticipated, that while he spends most of the story in a state of denial, in the end he's revealed as a very practical man looking at the world with eyes wide open.
As Pagnol explains in an archival interview included on the disc, the film was thrown together quickly after production on another director's film was cancelled, threatening to idle Pagnol's Marseille studio. He planned a short feature, bottom-of-the-bill fodder, but eventually realized that his affection for all the characters resulted in a two-hour-plus screenplay. Raimu especially is so wonderful the movie audience never gets bored: they could watch him forever.
Video & Audio
? In its original 1.37:1 black-and-white form, The Baker's Wife looks great throughout, sourced as it was from a new 4K restoration of the original nitrate camera negative and 35mm soundtrack negative. The English subtitles are very good, and the disc is Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include a 1967 to the film by Pagnol, apparently for a television airing; an excerpt from a 1966 television interview; and a selected-scene audio commentary by Pagnol scholar Brett Bowles. The best extra, however, is a 1976 television segment that revisits the village of Le Castellet, where the movie was shot, interviewing locals who nearly 40 years earlier had worked as extras or bit players in the film. Also included is a fold-out essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.
A delightful film, The Baker's Wife is not to be missed. A DVD Talk Collectors Series title.