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Marius (2013) and Fanny (2013) - 2-Disc Set

Kino // Unrated // December 9, 2014
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted December 29, 2014 | E-mail the Author
Note: I normally try and write spoiler-free reviews. However, since this is a set containing the first two parts of a three-part story, I will naturally have to reveal the outcome of the first film in writing about the second. (I also imagine the audience to which this set will appeal already know Pagnol's stories, and are more interested in the execution than the plot.)

It's rare to come across a film (or in this case, a set of films) as divisive as Marius and Fanny. That's not to say I expect audiences will be split over them, or that one is good and the other is bad, it's that the experience of watching them is simultaneously engaging and incredibly frustrating, lovely and awful, charming and obnoxious. In every moment, the film continuously provides the same reasons to keep watching alongside the same elements that made me want to throw the remote through the television.

Based on the famous French plays by Marcel Pagnol, Marius and Fanny are two separate films, both adapted and directed by famous French filmmaker Daniel Auteuil, with the third in the series, Cesar, on the way (currently listed as "in production" on IMDb, but another is currently listed as "filming", and I doubt Auteuil is simultaneously shooting two unrelated movies at once). They follow a romance between a young bartender (Raphael Personnaz) who yearns for the sea and a beautiful young woman (Victoire Belezy) who works in the dock market selling oysters. They have known each other all their lives, and although neither has made a move, there is the sense that they are destined to be together. Marius lives with his father, Cesar (Auteuil) in the bar he owns, and Fanny lives with her mother, Honorine (Marie-Anne Chazel) in a small flat a few blocks away in the harbor village.

As Marius begins, Fanny is entertaining a proposal from an aging widower, Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), whose offer promises a comfortable lifestyle with anything Fanny could want. Honorine suspects that Fanny will not be happy with money alone, but the social standards of the day are very important to Honorine, so she is willing to let Panisse propose. Fanny asks Marius what he thinks, but ever since he saw one of the sailboats taking off into the night, he has yearned to see the world, experience something bigger than his father's bar. Although he won't admit it, he loves Fanny deeply, and is more than interested in making her his wife, but the call of adventure is stronger in him at the moment than the traditional path a marriage would set him on.

Personnaz and Belezy are wonderful together. Personnaz gives off a stern and driven attitude without appearing moody or cold, while Belezy projects a charming, carefree innocence that plays youthful rather than aloof. Both project a yearning that generates crackling romantic chemistry between them; his soulfulness matches with her earnest desire for him in a way that transcends the material. Auteuil is very funny as Cesar, having fun playing the crotchety old man, and later shifts into some impressive dramatic work that suggests actors performing on stage. The entire film, really, feels very play-like, with Auteuil the director concentrating all his energy on capturing the dramatic electricity of actors performing against one another rather than any kind of visual wonder. It's simple, but it works. Watching these actors work together (as well as Darrousin and Chazel) is consistently engaging, thrilling, and moving.

Although I'm not familiar with the source material, there is a sense that the films' adherence to Pagnol's work (or Auteuil's unwillingness to change it) is where problems begin to crop up. The dramatic issues in both movies mostly stem out of what was considered decent in society in the 1920s, and how the characters deal. Although I'm not suggesting Auteuil should have ignored these norms, they're taken for granted in a way that feels like it would've made more sense when they were accepted, with no eye to the audience being unfamiliar with these ideals. Specifically, the characters acknowledge and make choices based on these norms, but never appear to feel anything about them, which -- without changing how they affect characters' decisions or the course of the story -- would be a perfect way to ease a modern audience into it. A crucial development in Fanny could mean a great shame on Fanny's mother. When Fanny makes decisions to resolve this problem, there's no sense of what she actually feels about it. She does it mechanically, driven more by the gears of the plot than anything internalized, which only makes the shift in values stand out further. A stronger sense that she's making a choice, overlooking her personal disinterest to protect her mother, would make the development more dramatic, both for Fanny as a character and for the film, but instead it comes off robotic.

The dramatic thrust of Marius is the reveal that he has arranged to claim a position on a boat at the first available opportunity. He is torn between his love for Fanny and his desire to live his dream. It's a perfectly good conflict, but it is nothing short of infuriating how the characters deal with it, which again plays out more like what was written into the play than characters expressing aspects of their personality. Fanny doesn't want him to go, because she loves him, but even when she technically understands he needs to go, because he will lose something vital inside himself if he stays, she comes off as selfish and petty. It feels as if there should be a sense that she chooses to let him go because she loves him, and it would be tragic that he has to go, but an understanding that it will complete him. Instead, she seems to remain genuinely hopeful he'll give up his silly lifelong dream instead of separating them for a temporary amount of time. One ends up rooting for Marius to leave, which is probably not the intent. That's not to say it's all on Fanny, either: he is often frustrating as well, insistently keeping his dream obscured as long as possible, creating more conflicts between them and the members of their family. I guess communication between couples wasn't common at the time.

The second film is arguably even worse than the first one. It might as well be called Cesar and Panisse instead of Fanny for all the part she plays in it. Auteuil tells us of Fanny's heartbreak over and over, but we never feel very close to it, possibly because there's still a sense that she holds the sacrifice she made for him against him (not unnatural, over time, but wrong at the outset). When Fanny is again put on the spot to consider a marriage to Panisse, the following scene is somewhat agonizing, two old men arguing over the future of a young woman who sits silently behind them. Once again, it's the kind of scene that could be adjusted to allow Fanny to make more decisions for herself or for the welfare of her mother without altering the outcome; the film is supposedly about her, after all. The scene repeats itself at the end when Marius finally returns home, and there is an argument in Panisse's house. The position Marius is placed in should have a certain tragic complexity, a natural outcome of decisions that were vital but ultimately caused a ripple effect he was not around to experience, but he too comes off as selfish, demanding ownership over Fanny. All that would have to change for this attitude to work is for Fanny to say something -- just take some lines from Cesar or Panisse and reword them from her perspective -- but again, she is passive while three men argue about her.

There is a story in these movies that remains powerful, that could be the basis for a grand romantic tragedy. All it needs is some adjustments, the kind that would be included in any modern adaptation of classic material, to make it more dramatically relevant without changing the beats of the story. Instead, Auteuil sticks to what seems like the text, creating something filled with energy by the performances but constantly at odds with the material, as eminently watchable as it is disappointing.

I'm sure many are familiar with the stories Marius and Fanny, so perhaps it was seen as a given that the art for this double feature not need to emphasize some of the details, but looking at the cover, which is basically the faces of Personnaz and Belezy, with Auteuil superimposed in the corner, it's hard to tell this is a period piece. The two-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (less plastic, no holes) with a flap tray, and there is an insert promoting other Kino Lorber releases.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 and French Dolby Digital 5.1, both films are essentially of the same quality, granted a disc to themselves. Contrast seems a little boosted, with the occasional flaring white, and more commonly, slightly crushed blacks, but this is a generally handsome picture with accurate-looking color and a reasonable amount of fine detail, especially in close-ups. Some compression artifacts are visible in wider shots (creating slight haloes around details like flagpoles -- not edge enhancement, just compression artifacts), but it's a minor inconvenience. The soundtracks are fairly simple, without much in the way of atmospherics; as noted above, these are shot almost like plays, where the only real focus is the dialogue and the occasional bit of music. There is almost no reason the films couldn't have been presented in stereo. English subtitles are provided, of course, for both features.

The Extras
For some reason -- it must be some sort of mistake -- the same short featurette (2:02) is included on the discs for both Marius and Fanny. It's entitled "Marius", so it seems as if a second featurette about the second movie was left off. It's a surface-level, clip-heavy discussion with Auteuil and Personnaz about his character's motivation. Both discs also include a (correct) original theatrical trailer for the respective film.

Perhaps Pagnol purists will be more pleased by Auteuil's rendition of these two films. They are certainly handsomely performed by a cast that captures the viewer's attention, but there is a sense that the material could've been better massaged to create a stronger sense of drama for today's audiences (without betraying the original text). There is also a weird potential issue with the disc's short supply of supplements. Rent it.

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