Thursday, September 12, 2019

Audient Audit: Manon of the Spring

This is the latest in my 2019 monthly series trying to figure out if I’m lying when I say I’ve seen certain films.

You may recall that in August I did a bonus installment of Audient Audit that was inspired by watching Jean de Florette in a different viewing challenge. Having been assigned that movie made me realize I might have a movie that needed to be audited in a different way, in that it didn’t appear on my lists but should have. That was ultimately my conclusion about Claude Berri’s 1986 film.

Berri had another 1986 film called Manon of the Spring, the sequel to Jean de Florette. It came conveniently included in the Florette DVD I borrowed from the library. And like Florette, Manon was also a movie I thought I might have watched in French class a year or two after it came out. In fact, I remember being able to translate the title into French: Manon du Source. Imagine my surprise when it is now translated as Manon des Sources, which refers to multiple springs, somewhat confusingly. Maybe it was always translated that way, but to me, it’s Bicycle Thieves all over again. (Of course, the whole thinking seems to be faulty here, as "source" takes a feminine article, "la," which means it would have been Manon de la Source. "Du" is used when it's a masculine article, as "de le" is not a valid construction in French.)

But I digress. Even though this is another installment, a regular installment, of a series devoted to legitimizing movies that were illegitimately on my various lists, I decided to watch Manon in September before it’s due back at the library, and just take care of this month’s entry in Audient Audit. So yeah, that may mean that one movie I had tapped for this series will remain in limbo about whether it belongs on my lists, but watching movies can be a “catch as catch can” proposition, especially when you are returning from a three-week vacation and still vaguely dealing with jet lag.

The reason Manon should definitely have already been on my list – especially when compared to movies like last month’s Breathless, which it was immediately clear I had seen almost none of – was that I remember, back in the late 1980s, finding Manon dull in comparison to Jean de Florette. This certainly seems like proof that I had seen both movies, once I recalled it.

However, having watched Berri’s sequel, I’m now thinking that it was indeed assigned in a French class to get the teacher through a couple afternoons when she had otherwise been too lazy to plan something, but that perhaps I found it so boring that I tuned out. I felt pretty sure that I had seen the first half of the movie, but it was disappointing me enough that maybe I started doodling in my notebook instead of watching. And if you aren’t watching, listening is not enough to say you’ve followed the movie. Sure, we were taking French, but to say that we actually understood a lot of it without subtitles would have been a stretch.

What had disappointed me about Manon of the Spring, assuming this memory I’ve concocted is actually legitimate, was how passive the title character seemed to me. At the end of Jean de Florette, she witnesses Urgolin (Daniel Auteuil) and Papet (Yves Montand) do a little jig as they restore the water source to the land her father once owned. The thing they accomplished fairly easily, as a result of withholding key information from him, was the thing that killed him, as he died while trying to use explosives to identify the water source. (Oops, sorry, spoilers for Jean de Florette.) That she wouldn’t have sworn lifelong vengeance and risen up to kill them made her seem, to me, weak or disinterested. (Or maybe I’m just thinking this now because I was fresh off viewing the Australian historical vengeance movie The Nightingale the night before watching Manon.)

But Manon did indeed have vengeance in mind, heeding the wisdom that it’s a dish best served cold. That I didn’t realize that at the time is further proof that either I did not watch the whole movie, or that I didn’t comprehend what I was watching, which maybe is the same thing.

Manon does find the mysterious source for the water that bubbles up on her father’s land when it’s not blocked. It happens when she chases a stray goat (she’s a goatherd) into a cave. When she find that water, she’s finally ready to give the town a little dose of its own medicine, blocking the source the way Urgolin and Papet once blocked it for her father.

The funny thing is that I didn’t totally realize this was what was happening on this viewing either. I saw her find the source, but we don’t actually see her blocking it. We only see the water dry up for Urgolin and others and them starting to panic. Only by reading the Wikipedia summary afterward did I realize this is what happened.

I’m not slow, but as I mentioned earlier, I am jet-lagged. This means the nearly two-hour movie was a struggle indeed to get through. I could have waited a few days more, but I’d already renewed this and other movies I brought on my trip once, and I was planning to return them all to the library Thursday after work. It was watching Manon of the Spring on Wednesday night, or not at all.

I was again bothered this time by the comparative passivity, the mute passivity, of Manon. I had a bit of trouble believing her character, due in part to the blank performance of Emmanuel Beart, but also to the decision to have her rarely speak, and to float and dance around like some kind of fairy. She just didn’t strike me as a real person, which made her (initial) failure to seek vengeance on those who wronged her father seem more like a character flaw than perhaps just an instance of waiting for the right moment, or maybe just not being a vindictive person in the first place.

While Florette and Manon are both fairly minimalist in terms of story, it bothered me in Manon where it did not in Florette. I felt like a huge amount of time was spent covering a fairly small amount of narrative, making it seem like points were belabored this time that were not belabored in the first film. I also found that Berri’s work with actors was less distinctive, and I don’t think we can only blame the absence of Gerard Depardieu. Auteuil, a very good actor, did not impress me this time out, possibly because he is given a truly predatory attitude toward Manon that kind of skeeved me out. (Who runs after a woman, increasing the magnitude of his proposals the faster she flees? He’s proposing desperate marriage as she disappears over the top of a hill, scared out of her wits.) Montand also interested me less this time around.

Manon of the Spring is still a good movie, It’s just at least a full star lower than its predecessor, and something I definitely won’t watch again now that I’ve officially seen it once.

Only three months left to watch the 15 (!) movies I’ve still got on my list of those I initially identified as candidates for this series. Then again, two-thirds of those are generally unavailable, so it’ll work out just about right.

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