Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Manon of the Spring (Manon des Sources)/ Jean de Florette

(Manon des Sources, France, 1986)

I’m going to treat these movies as a single film, since they were taken from a single story and were filmed at the same time. They are so closely paired, in fact, that I think it would be a mistake to see Manon first. You would miss a lot of the delicious pleasure of seeing two really bad men get what’s coming to them, because you wouldn’t know just how dastardly their behavior was.

Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) returns to his small village in Provence from his military service in WWI with a plan to grow carnations for profit. His rich uncle César (Yves Montand, in his last film) thinks it’s a good idea, but they will need the land adjoining his, because it has a spring on it. But the neighbor doesn’t want to sell. They get into a fight, and César accidentally kills the neighbor. (Not that he regrets it. Making their getaway, unsure if the man is really dead, César says “Let’s go back and finish him off.”)

(Here’s a SPOILER WARNING, though I think this part of the story is inevitable, and you will easily figure it out.)

They expected to be able to get the land, but the heir turns out to be Jean (Gérard Depardieu), who is a hunchback (the tallest, most erect hunchback I’ve ever seen, but forget it), a city boy with a dream of getting back to the land. He arrives with his family, wife Aimée (Élisabeth Depardieu, Gérard’s real-life wife at the time) and young daughter, Manon. Disaster! Suddenly Ugolin and César don’t have access to the water. But they can be patient. They plug up the spring, so Jean doesn’t get the water, either. He has no idea there is a spring on his land.

If the rains come when they usually come, he will be all right. He’s inexperienced, but has a lot of great ideas for raising crops and rabbits. But he’s relying on statistics, and that can be fatal. The rains don’t come. His crops all die. He’s running out of money. He tries dowsing, finds a site to dig a well (it’s the wrong site, but of course his bastard neighbors don’t tell him that). When he gets down to rock, he tries blasting, and is killed when a flying rock strikes him. Rejoicing! But as his family prepares to leave, little Manon sees them unplugging the well. She realizes that everything could have been saved. Her father could still be alive.

So, on to the second movie. I will not issue a spoiler warning, because I’m not going to tell much other than generalities. Manon has returned, is living with some gypsies nearby, herding goats, a complete mystery to the villagers. She shuns everyone. Ugolin and the evil uncle are thriving. But she finds a wonderful way of getting even: she performs a miracle. Not in the supernatural sense, not at all, though the villagers see it as an evil omen. This whole story is about water, and her revenge involves water. She finds a way … and that’s all I can say. There are still further surprises, and this movie wraps up the story in the most satisfactory way imaginable.

I can’t recommend these movies highly enough. They were filmed over seven months, so the changing of the seasons could be shown. This worked considerable hardships on the cast, who had to return at different times of the year though they might be engaged in other work. They were a huge hit in France, where the novels they were based on are beloved. They made a big impact internationally, too. Yves Montand, in particular, is wonderful here. He is almost immobile much of the time, but a lifting of an eyebrow or a twitching of his mouth always tell us what he’s thinking. It is wonderful to look at, and the music of Verdi fits in perfectly. I can find no flaws here. If you haven’t seen these movies, you should see them at once.