It's strange how a film with such lush beauty can also feature the unbearable ugliness society can hold. "Jean de Florette" is at once beautiful, poetic, maddening, and whimsical; I've never seen a film quite like it. There are few times where I truly have been involved with the lives of characters in a film, and "Jean de Florette" is a great example of one. How can it be so cruel, but also so human?
Taking place on the photogenic French countryside, the film follows the sickening plight of two struggling farmers, Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) and his uncle Cesar (Yves Montand); they plan to drive out an incoming family, who plan to be farmers, out of their land so they can sell the property for quick profit. What's their master plan? To plug the spring that provides constant nutrition for the garden the family plans to live off of. How do they get ownership of that spring? By killing the original owner.
The twosome try every trick in the book to cause their new neighbors to leave, but Jean (Gerard Depardieu), the husband and father, won't budge, despite the fact that water is short and the weather is unbelievably dry. For months, the struggle is huge - but when (spoiler alert) Jean tragically meets his demise, and the uncle/nephew pairing of farmers come out successfully, we're left sick to our stomachs.
If there wasn't the promise of a follow-up to "Jean de Florette" in which Jean's daughter Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna) grows up (Emmanuelle Béart) and gets revenge (in the follow-up, "Manon des Sources), I swear I could have a breakdown. "Jean de Florette" is often times so heart wrenching that it's almost impossible to stand.
It starts off with a bit of sweetness; Ugolin is seen as a kind, simple man that simply wants to grow flowers for a living, and Cesar seems to be his wise, caring father-figure. But as the film goes on, their despicable acts of selfishness grow to a point where we can't help but despise them. Surely, their cruelty isn't unneeded - after all, everyone in the area in which the characters live struggle just to get by.
But seeing that the family they target, the Cadoret's, are so harmless and warm-hearted, it's somewhat hard to emphasize with them. Claude Berri, who is incredible when it comes to balancing style and hard drama, flawlessly balances the struggle each and every character has, and, despite the hatred we have for Ugolin and Cesar, we can slimly understand why they're doing what they're doing.
Ugolin and Cesar are played by Daniel Auteuil and Yves Montand, two fantastic actors from different generations, Auteuil being the up-and-coming dynamo and Montand being a respected film veteran. Their characters are difficult to truly understand, but they flesh them out in a way that makes them complex instead of being one-dimensionally diabolical. Depardieu, who gives one of his best performances, his tragic as Jean, who at first is so kind and hopeful, but by the end is turned into a depressed failure that can barely get by.
"Jean de Florette" is simply spectacular, and a feel-bad movie has never felt so good - I simply cannot wait to see how it all pans out in "Manon des Sources".