High art, we are taught, resides in the lower depths. Misery breeds profundity, the argument goes, and it has a corollary: anything cheery is a gilded lie. Drizzle is real, sunlight a sham. To focus on the sunny side, and to find resonance there, is to engage in a kind of aesthetic Reaganism. Every smile is a commercial for a product destined to be recalled: Life Lite.
Every once in a while, though, an artist refutes this gloomy view. Here it is two artists: the late French author and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol and the French director Yves Robert, who have collaborated across the generations on two airily magnificent movies, My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle, adapted from Pagnol's memoirs. These films mope not; neither do they scold. Instead, audaciously, they take a vacation from fatalism and solemnity, locating radiance in the bosom of an ordinary bourgeois family. They say that life can be beguiling, beautiful -- at least in the storybook clarity of Pagnol's art.
Best known in the U.S. for his 1930s films Topaze, Fanny and The Baker's Wife, and for a recent two-part movie hit (Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs) based on his novels, Pagnol is a figure unique in 20th century French culture. He might be described as the Provencal Mark Twain, if that beloved "regional" writer had also made movies championed by critics and the public. He could be a French Frank Capra, if that populist filmmaker had also been his country's most popular playwright. Pagnol introduced French theatergoers to the accent of his own rural south, where Rs roll off the tongue like a river over its bed, and carted his movie camera out of the studio and into the side streets and luscious hills of Provence. The father of the French talkie, he was also the godfather of European neorealism.
Pagnolmania the French call their long love affair with the author-auteur (he died in 1974). That benign affliction was rekindled last year with the European release of My Father's Glory and My Mother's Castle. This summer the two-film magical memory tour comes to American screens. Rapture is the only appropriate response.
Pagnol was in his 60s when he wrote his Memories of Childhood. Robert, a friend of Pagnol's, was 70 when he directed the film adaptations. These are old men's movies about youth. They tell us that memories are precious because life is short. Mothers will die in their prime, and boys will fall in the Great War -- a war that ended an age of innocence and left Pagnol with a bittersweet remembrance of things lost.
% Here is the Pagnol family: father Joseph (Philippe Caubere), a schoolteacher; mother Augustine (Nathalie Roussel), a seamstress; little Marcel (Benoit Martin, then Julien Ciamaca), a serious, curious child who reads everything he can find, from cookbooks to soap wrappers. In the first hour of My Father's Glory -- the most luminous part of either film, or of any film since charm went out of fashion -- Joseph anxiously faces a new teaching job, Augustine gives birth to a second son (Victorien Delmare), and Marcel's maiden aunt (Therese Liotard) meets her future husband (Didier Pain) while walking Marcel in the park. For this middle-aged couple, love is a waltz in a summer shower. Her umbrella catches glints of a rainbow.