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Marseille Trilogy, The
The Marseille Trilogy is comprised of three films: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and Cesar (1936). Marius and Fanny are based on the original theatrical plays written by Marcel Pagnol (Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring, My Father's Glory, My Mother's Castle). The final film in the trilogy, Cesar, was only produced as a film. The films in the Marseille Trilogy are considered as some of the most historic works in French film history. Pagnol produced the trilogy.
In Marius, the first installment of the trilogy, Marius (Pierre Fresnay) is a young man working at a bar owned by his father Cesar Olivier (Raimu). Marius lives alongside the ocean sea and has dreams of being a sailor out at sea. Yet he also has feelings for Fanny (Orane Demazis), a girl working outside of the bar.
Fanny and Marius begin a relationship with each other but things are complicated as Marius can't decide whether or not to propose to Fanny or to follow his dreams and set out on the ocean. The situation is further complicated by when Fanny is proposed to by Panisse (Fernand Charpin), an older man with more wealth than Marius.
Marius, jealous of the proposal, becomes more stubborn and conflicted about what to do. Fanny cares for Marius and wants to be with him but also wants his dreams to come true. She feels she must consider the proposal of Panisse for her family's financial stability.
In Fanny, the second installment, the focus of the story shifts more to Fanny. Marius has gone to sea and she must decided on whether or not to marry Panisse and forget about Marius. The story has several surprises as it moves in a new direction.
In the final installment of the trilogy, Cesar, Marius returns home from the sea but many years have passed since he left. Fanny is now married to Panisse and has a son with him. Fanny and Marius still care for each other but much has changed in their years apart.
Fanny's son, Cesariot (who is now an adult) meets Marius. The entire family (including Marius's father, Cesar) discuss the relationship between Marius and Fanny as things continue to become complicated between them. They storyline builds to an ultimate conclusion at the end of Cesar which wraps up the story of their relationship. Do Marius and Fanny wind up together or was it destiny for them to be apart?
Along the journey of the story of Marius and Fanny, several supporting characters are explored who go to the bar owned by Cesar: Albert Brun (Robert Vattier) (known as Monsieur Brun), a comedic fellow who often finds himself in silly situations (such as trying out a boat that Panisse recommends he purchase that is known for tipping over), Honorine Cabanis (Alida Rouffe), and Felix Escartefigue (Paul Dullac). The trio often find themselves beside Panisse and Cesar as they play cards, discuss their lives, and spend time together having lengthy conversations about their lives in Marseille.
Marcel Pagnol, as a firm believer in the theater and as someone who was not a fan of silent cinema, saw an early talkie and was blown away by the possibilities it presented. Pagnol immediately knew he wanted to turn his plays into films and work in the medium. Though producing silent film was something that he didn't understand, Pagnol felt cinema could be a form of archiving theater which could bring in a wider audience.
Marius is one of the earliest talkies ever produced. Pagnol, who wrote each screenplay in the trilogy, kept the first two installments (Marius and Fanny) closely to the play versions. The resulting films were described by some critics as being "theatrical" films because they were similar to the stage plays. The final installment, Cesar, was a departure of sorts in that the film utilized the medium of film in more cinematic ways (with many outdoor scenes and sequences which more effectively utilized the potential of cinema).
Though critics initially disliked the Marseille Trilogy, each film was a box-office success. The films have stayed in popular-culture with several new performances of the plays (and even remakes of the first two films): Marius (2013) and Fanny (2013). Cesar is still to come.
Though sound in cinema is now taken for granted, it took early pioneers of talkies for modern filmmaking techniques to be developed. These films are early examples of sound films with dialogue and more characterizations. Talkies were initially described as being "a fad" that people would get over by concerned studio heads and pessimistic critics. Yet time has proven that pessimism about the new medium to be wrong, with "talkies" (as they were once called) now being the standard for filmmaking.
The films utilized acclaimed stage actors from Marseille. Pagnol, as a producer, wished for the original stage production cast to return for the films. Part of this was because they were almost entirely comprised of natives of Marseille so their accents were authentic for the roles. This was certainly a departure for film as most talkies going into production utilized silent film stars (and studio executives were still trying to figure out how they might transition their silent film stars to speaking roles).
Pagnol was involved in producing each film in the trilogy. Though directing duties for Marius went to Hollywood's Alexander Korda (That Hamilton Woman, Rembrandt),the film still has Pagnol's mark as a filmmaker with his story and selection of the cast. The film has the most theatrical stage-play quality to it. The music by Francis Gromon (The Painted Desert, Lonely Wives) gives a romantic, nostalgic sensibility while the cinematography by Theodore J. Pahle (Trifles, The Siege) is beautiful.
Fanny, meanwhile, was directed by Marc Allegret (Plucking the Daisy, Blanche Fury), who ultimately gives the film the most French style filmmaking of the trilogy. It's also the most comedic of the bunch with more comedic scenes throughout. It's tone is quite different in comparison to Marius but the film still works as a middle-chapter in the story. The music composed by Vincent Scotto (The Well-Digger's Daughter, The Baker's Wife) is a bit more playful in style. The cinematography by Nikolai Toporkoff (Napoleon, The Lame Devil) is unfortunately less consistently impressive than the first film. Yet the film manages to have the most comedic moments and the story continues to develop in surprising ways.
For the final film, Cesar, Pagnol writes and directs the final installment. The result is surprising. The last film in the series feels the most cinematic and less theatrical despite being made by the playwright who initially started the series with a more theatrical style of filmmaking. This final chapter (which was not produced as a play) stands as the best in the series. The final film finds more of a balance between comedy and drama. The music is again composed by Vincent Scotto (Fanny) and features stellar cinematography by Willy Faktorovitch (Harvest, The Well-Digger's Daughter), Grischa, and Roger Ledru (The Baker's Wife, Toni).
Though each installment in the trilogy can feel overly melodramatic at times (and sometimes might even feel like an early soap-opera with so many big events in the stories), each film in the trilogy manages to be a bit better than the last. Each film builds the story, characters, and setting to the finale. Cesar is the best of the trilogy and it brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion.
While I had some reservations about each film, The Marseille Trilogy still managed to impress with its ahead-of-its-time use of sound and the still developing medium of filmmaking. Cinema was still, in most regards, in its infancy when these films were produced. Pagnol's films certainly stand as ambitious efforts which strive to push the film medium in new directions. Film fans will certainly find this to be an interesting trilogy that is worth discovering.
Each film in the collection has received a brand new 4K restoration effort. The painstaking restoration efforts have resulted in three stunning efforts of these early French talkies. Each film is presented in the original theatrical full frame aspect ratio. Marius and Fanny are both presented in 1.19:1 and Cesar is presented in 1.37:1.
Marius is the most impressive looking film in the trilogy. The film looks remarkably sharp given its age. It's almost as if the film was just produced. Clarity is superb throughout. Black levels are reasonably strong for the time-period.
Fanny, on the other hand, shows some (albeit minor) print wear and some brief segments of the footage seem out of focus (due to the cinematographer). The majority of the film is still quite impressive, though.
Cesar is almost a match for the quality of presentation in display with Marius, which is quite surprising especially given how many outdoor sequences the film has. Out of the three films, Cesar is the most cinematic by today's standards with much more exterior footage. The film is lovely with crisp photography.
Given that each of the three films had different cinematographers and these films are such early efforts in the talkie era of cinema, it's an amazing accomplishment by Criterion that these films have been so painstakingly restored.
Each of the three films is presented in the original French with English subtitles. The films are presented with the original mono audio mixes. These are satisfying uncompressed mono 1.0 presentations which are preserved at 24 bit depth. Dialogue is surprisingly clean and easy to understand. The film's mono audio presentations are so well restored they will satisfactorily present the films for today's audiences.
The release includes a booklet featuring an essay on the trilogy written by film critic Michael Atkinson, several excerpts from a book containing the plays by Marcel Pagnol, featuring his writing about the development of the plays and the films, translated into English. Credits and restoration information are also provided for the release. This is an in-depth booklet which is worth reading for its great insights into the development of the films and their history.
On disc supplements include:
Introduction by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (20 min., HD), who provides information on the plays and discusses each of the films.
Nicolas Pagnol (HD, 30 min.) grandson of Marcel Pagnol, speaks about his efforts in helping to get the films restored. He discusses Pagnol's legacy as a filmmaker and refers to several works made by Pagnol (including the Marseille Trilogy).
Pagnol's Poetic Realism (HD, 30 min.) is a video essay about the Marseille Trilogy and the period of filmmaking in France at the time of its production (known as the poetic realism period). This essay was produced by a film and French professor named Brett Bowles. Bowles is also the author of Marcel Pagnol, the first comprehensive book written in English on the films of Pagnol).
Theatrical Re-release Trailer (HD, 2 min.)
Marcel Pagnol - Morceaux Choisis is a six-part television special about Marcel Pagnol that was produced for television and broadcast in 1973. The Criterion Collection has included two of the six episodes for this release: Episode 3 (1 Hr.) and Episode 4 (30 min.). Each episode was chosen for the focus being related to the Marseille Trilogy. Each episode features interviews with Parcel Pagnol about working on the plays and films with in-depth information on the beginning of production and the process behind the development of the films.
Orane Demazis (4 min., SD) discusses his involvement in working on the Marseille Trilogy as Fanny in this archival clip from a 1967 interview.
Pierre Fresnay (6 min., SD), who is Marius in the films, is interviewed in this classic archival interview from 1956.
Robert Vattier (11 min., SD) is interviewed in this short 1976 TV special about the actor and his supporting role in the Marseille Trilogy as the comedic Monsieur Brun. This is a short profile on Vattier. Though most moviegoers do not know him well he had success as a supporting actor in other films of the time.
Marseille (HD, 12 min.) is a short documentary made by director Marcel Pagnol about the harbor in Marseille. The film has lots of footage of the ocean and the harbor (and its many boats). The film is presented in high definition but was not restored for release. The best available source was used for the presentation.
Restoration of the Marseille Trilogy (HD, 2 min.) is a brief video discussing the restoration efforts undertaken for the trilogy.
It's hard to believe any fan of classic cinema would be disappointed by the level of care that went into producing this quality Blu-ray release. The Criterion Collection has crafted another excellent release featuring stunning restorations of all three films and an excellent selection of extras. The included booklet is a great read and provides much insight into the development of the trilogy.
Though I had some mixed feelings about the films themselves, the Marseille Trilogy is an important work of cinema for its development of the talkie (and therefore modern-day) filmmaking. Each film in the trilogy is progressively more cinematic and utilizes more techniques that are common in filmmaking today. These early French talkies are highly melodramatic but are often entertaining. This is a trilogy worth seeing for classic cinema enthusiasts.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.