Saturday, October 8, 2011

Jean de Florette -- unseen enemies, unseen solutions

Director: Claude Berri, 1986 (NR) 

A pastoral scene emerges at the start of Jean de Florette, a slow but beautiful French film. The rustic beauty of a sleepy French village in 1920s Provence appears tranquil, almost idyllic. But this belies the truth: the greed inherent in man can destroy life, turning a prosperous farm into a dry and dusty ruin.

This is the story of two families, the Soubeyrans and the Florettes. They are the old and the new, the cynical and the modern. Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand) is the old bachelor running his vineyard, living alone, a sad life. When his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) returns from military service, Ugolin has a dream of developing a carnation farm. But this dream is stillborn since they have no water on their land. They need a well or a spring; this is what their neighbor has. But he won’t share with them or sell his land to them. And, despite his age, Cesar is not afraid to get his hands dirtied with blood.

When the hunchback Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu) and his family, wife Aimee Cadoret (Elisabeth Depardieu, Gerard’s former wife) and daughter Manon Cadoret (Ernestine Mazurowna), move into the farm they inherit next to Soubeyran, they have a dream of raising rabbits. Jean has a modern plan, relying on statistics and methods. And he has money to carry him through the initial set-up years. But, like Cesar, he needs water. Unbeknownst to him, the two Soubeyrans have blocked his spring and are waiting for a drought to force him to sell.

There is a biblical parallel that springs to mind: the story of Ahab’s desire for Naboth’s vineyard, told in 1 Kings 21. The king wanted Naboth’s land but would not take it, so his evil wife Jezebel hired two scoundrels to make slanderous accusations against Naboth that led directly to his execution. When he had been stoned to death, Ahab took the land for himself. Desire births greed which in turn births wicked schemes that ignore the pain that they bring to others.

What underscores the tragic consequences of Cesar’s greed is the behavior of Ugolin. Sent by his uncle to befriend Jean and his family, he gets close to them appearing to be a good neighbor who is at hand to help. In reality he is a spy for his uncle, doing all he can to undermine Jean’s plans.

Jean has two enemies in the film: the Soubeyrans. He sees Ugolin as a friend but misses his true nature. Yet he never even meets Cesar, who remains an unseen foe, one hovering at the periphery of the picture watching and waiting, patient for the fall of Florette.

In real life we often fail to see our real enemy: Satan (2 Cor. 11:14). He roams like a ferocious lion seeking to devour and destroy us (1 Pet. 5:8), yet we cannot see him and so often ignore him. This is a mistake. Visible enemies may have some power but this pales in comparison to that of Satan. On our own we cannot stand in his way. Only in the power of Christ, who has already conquered Satan (Col. 2:15), can we expect victory. But to gain such triumph we must first trust Jesus and then we must accept that we are in the midst of a spiritual war; Satan is the commander of those opposing forces.

Director Berri refuses, however, to sink to melodrama or to rise to suspense. He prefers to lay out the film like a slow walk in the meadows. The characters are clearly on display without hiding their motivations. Though Jean cannot see what is going on, we can. And the long expansive shots in the cinematography capture the idea of the vastness and value of the land, even the difficulty of working the land. This gets to the point of the film: the relentless nature of human greed subjugates the value of the human spirit. It is willing to sacrifice people for the goal of gaining the land and its water. Further, the slow deliberate pace underscores the patience of the greedy as they wait slowly for their schemes to come to fruition.

Two scenes stand out. In one, Jean is forcing his mule and himself to make multiple treks across his land to a neighboring well to carry water back. Like his mule, he is a beast of burden. Seeing his “friend” Ugolin, he asks if he can borrow Ugolin’s mule as well, to make his task easier. Ugolin appears sympathetic, but lies to him and gently refuses to help. Ugolin wants to see him wither and waste away, but Jean does not know this. In another scene, the storm that Jean predicts will come arrives in the middle of the night. Seeing lightning strikes and hearing thunderclaps, Jean throws open his windows and runs out into the rainy night . . . only to discover the rain is falling across the valley, not on his fields. He stands there with his family, looking up into the night sky, and shakes his fist at the heavens and rails at the God who has forsaken him.

The tragedy is that the answer to his problems was staring him in the face. He had a spring, he just didn’t know. How often are we like Jean de Florette? Our problem seems insurmountable, yet the solution is right in front of us, we just can’t see it. Too often, though, we cry against God, seeing him as the enemy, thinking he has put us in the difficult situation and then left us. We blame God. It is his fault.

God is not like this. He does not leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20). Quite the opposite in fact. He has promised that “he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13) We need to trust God and see his hand working in and around us. Paraphrasing Elisha’s prayer in 1 Kings 6, we might pray, “Open our spiritual eyes, LORD, so that we may see” and then we will likely discover the answer to our problems.

Jean de Florette evokes life in the pre-industrial world of rural France and bears watching. But if you do, be aware that it is only part 1 and it ends suddenly, leaving the viewer frustrated at the final turn of events. You had better have part 2 of this epic, Manon of the Spring, ready to bring this to a hopefully more satisfying conclusion.

Copyright©2011, Martin Baggs

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