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How Marcel Pagnol’s ‘Marseille Trilogy’ helped define talking pictures

Gene Siskel Film Center revives the beloved family dramas that treated cinema as an extension of the theater.

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For the next two weeks Gene Siskel Film Center presents a new digital restoration of Marcel Pagnol's beloved "Marseille Trilogy," three long dramatic features—Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936)—about a fractured family in the French seaside town. A tale of parenthood and its heartache, the movies struck an emotional chord in France and were enormously successful. Critics noted their lack of visual invention, calling them "canned theater," but the movies, arriving near the dawn of the talkies, laid down a marker of sorts with their resolutely theatrical style. Pagnol was a popular playwright in Marseille before he got into movies, and both Marius and Fanny had originated on the stage before he produced them for the screen. "The talking film is the art of printing, fixing, and propagating theatre," he once wrote, and to that end, the trilogy's sedate visual style focuses one's attention on the actors and their simple, eloquent dialogue. None are shown to greater advantage than Orane Demazis as the self-sacrificing mother figure in Pagnol's story and Raimu as the disappointed father figure.

As film scholar Ginette Vincendeau has pointed out, Pagnol was versed in the various theatrical entertainments available in Marseille, which rivaled Paris as a cultural hot spot, and the trilogy is steeped in the conventions of stage melodrama. Fanny (Demazis) and Marius (Pierre Fresnay) have known each other since they were toddlers, and she adores him; Marius can look forward to inheriting the seaside bar owned by his widowed father, César (Raimu), but he dreams of going to sea. At the end of Marius, Fanny urges Marius to accept an opening on a commercial ship headed to Australia and even sleeps with him before he departs; in Fanny, she discovers that she's pregnant and, unable to reach Marius, shields herself, her mother, and her unborn child from disgrace by marrying Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a widowed sail merchant 30 years her senior, and passing the child off as his. César picks up the story 20 years later, when Panisse has died and the child, now a young man, discovers the truth about his upbringing and brings Marius and Fanny together again to reckon with their past.

Pagnol's accomplishment with the Marseille Trilogy was to embrace the keen emotion of stage melodrama and yet, working with directors Alexander Korda and Marc Allégret, scale it down to the intimate space of the cinema. Demazis, who had been working with Pagnol in the theater since 1927 (and would give birth to his child in 1933), is extraordinary in all three movies, playing the central female character in a story governed by the desires of men. Fanny loves Marius with a devotion so pure it seems almost spiritual; in Marius, when he announces that he's going off to sea, she finally reveals her feelings to him. "For years I've waited to grow up so I could become your wife," she confesses, painfully vulnerable. Someone knocks at the door to collect Marius, which so startles Fanny that she throws her arms around him in a panic; the movement would seem too big for the screen if her emotion weren't so palpable. A later scene in Fanny shows how subtly Demazis draws on the swoon, an archetypal gesture in melodrama: after Fanny and César have read over a letter from the departed Marius, with all the strong emotion it brings, they stand up, and for just a moment Fanny falls back against the old man.

The bearish Raimu had gotten his start in the French music halls before breaking into the legitimate theater, and his range is formidable; all three movies call on him to perform comedy and pathos in relatively quick succession, sometimes in the same scene. Drinking at the bar with his buddies, a crew of seaside eccentrics whom Pagnol employs as a sort of Greek chorus, César is an expansive figure, bobbing around and waving his arms as they work their way through various comic arguments. In other scenes Raimu is more restrained, underplaying powerful moments so artfully that you understand why Orson Welles thought highly of him. In Marius, when Fanny reveals to César that Marius has left home, the old man is hit so hard by his son's rejection that he seems dazed and exhausted, weakly pulling Fanny's arms from around his shoulders and struggling to stand up. In a sense, he and Fanny are bound by their helpless love for Marius.

By the time Pagnol turned his attention to completing the trilogy with César, he'd founded his own movie studio in Marseille and assumed the director's duties himself. The last film is noticeably more polished than its predecessors, largely because the techniques for recording film soundtracks evolved so rapidly in the interim, and Pagnol makes a concerted effort to open up the movie with more location shooting. The original cast members, whom Pagnol took great pains to reunite, are more experienced in front of the camera as well. César, taking place two decades after Marius left home, shows how heavily the fiction surrounding Fanny's son, Césariot (André Fouché), has weighed on both Fanny and César. Fanny has accumulated years of anger toward Marius, her mother, and the circumstances that crowded her into a false marriage; César loves his illegitimate grandson and regrets the tangled situation his son created. The Marseille Trilogy, with its heavy debt to the theatrical experience, may seem like a relic now, but in emotional terms it hasn't aged a day.  v

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