1936 // France // Marcel Pagnol
Criterion Collection (LINK)
The third and the finale of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy unsurprisingly, following the optimistic and airy vibe of Fanny (1932), ends the upheaval story of three generations in a happy note. This time instead of transposing his own theatrical play onto the screen, Pagnol produced César solely for cinema-goers. After apprenticed/collaborated with Alexander Korda in Marius (1931) and Marc Allégret in Fanny, Pagnol took the director chair himself on four more films before finally retreating back to the familiar Marseille.
Twenty years had passed after Fanny ended, and the film started with Panisse (Fernand Charpin), the aged wealthy businessman, lying on his death bed, recounting his good old days with his best friends ever since from the school days, including the eponymous character César (Raimu). Elzéar the priest (Tommeray) was invited to hear the confession of Panisse who, like César, did not considered himself as a religious man. The priest advised Panisse to tell the “truth” to his own adolescent son Césariot (André Fouché) that Césariot in fact was not his son.
As the audience had presumably watched Marius and Fanny beforehand, it’s actually an open secret. Marius (Pierre Fresnay), the biological father of Césariot, left his lover Fanny (Orane Demazis) to pursue his dream as a sailor, both unaware of the pregnancy. When Marius realized, he came back to the then-married Fanny to recuperate her love and the new-born child. But circumstances had changed, in view of the family’s honour and the financial issue, Fanny was married to Panisse, a widower 30 years senior, who knowingly accepted the child as his own blood with his own reason. With the third installment of The Marseille Trilogy, Pagnol provided a resolution for all four characters in the most satisfying way, but again not without a great deal of chatting and gossiping, quarreling and asserting.
The verbal excessiveness of Pagnol’s script continued to irritate me at times, the wittiness and sarcasm of the dialogues eschewed any boredom but still lack of persistent charm, and in César, Pagnol became more dialectic with his view on religion (or the lack of it), love vs duty vs honor, parenthood and human spirit. The climactic confrontation between Marius, after knowing the young man he recently met was indeed his son, with his father and Fanny was overtly done in both actor’s performance (Pierre Fresnay was explicitly exaggerated with his physical gesture) and the rhapsodic conversations.
The film is at its best when it deals with the poignancy of Fanny, a woman who suffered from her love to Marius. Her confession to Césariot about her past and her own sacrifice was by far the most heartbreaking one in the trilogy. On the other hand, the timeworn, lonely César had to endure the repercussion of losing contact with his son for 13 years after an physical fight only retold by the characters in words. And the loss of his best friend Panisse just reminded him that death was closer than one thought. But César was not a character with much development throughout the trilogy, with Raimu’s consistently eloquent performance, César was as much as a passive participant as the spectators ourselves. César and Fanny both gave up their personal life for their own offspring (César reminded single, Fanny married to Panisse), and Marius the only one who seek freedom and left Marseille but suffer no less than those reminded.
Indeed Panisse the bourgeoisie was the only one who got what he wanted from beginning to the end, a remarriage with a young and beautiful wife, as well as a son bearing his family name. If Pagnol was trying to have a statement on class division, perhaps it’s to urge an unity between the working class. Even so the political point was too subtle and easily be over-read. Above all I believe what Pagnol staged was a realistic caricature of the common Marseille life with broad stokes of bitter and sweet moments simultaneously. They are far from the best French films ever made, but could still touch your heart emotionally, perhaps every now and then i would go back to the trilogy again and let the sea breeze carries me away.
Film Rating: 3.5/5