Reliving Impossible Dreams

From Provence, with love, come two idyllic comedies, the most beguiling films since charm went out of fashion

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The handsome cast performs these epiphanies in grand, graceful comic style; the actors know this is not so much real life as ideal life. And Robert, whose reputation previously rested on slight farces such as The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, presents the vignettes with an assured briskness the viewer barely has time to appreciate. They are like Marcel and his brother: eager and bright, soliciting our attention, trying to crowd each other out. But gently, no elbows. Again like Marcel, these films are at once playful and spectacularly well behaved.

Once the Pagnols take a summer cottage in Bastide Neuve, the movies stay there, as if they have found their true home. Marcel makes easy friends with a local mountain boy; he feels an edgy ecstasy in the company of a precocious coquette. And the locals, who were small-minded and suspicious in the Jean de Florette films, mingle like communicants in the Pagnols' joie de vivre. A game of boules on the village green. The bagging of a couple of rock partridges. A forbidden family trip across three great estates. Nothing much happens; everything is revealed. We leave young Marcel as he stretches toward puberty, sneaking a peek at the rest of his life. The boy is ready for it. He has been raised in the glory of his father's tutorial wisdom and sheltered in the castle of his mother's embrace.

Perhaps a childhood this idyllic could exist only in an aged writer's reverie -- in an attic stocked with antiques all the more precious to him because he alone realizes their value. The great gift of Pagnol's memoirs is to create a universal family out of what may have been his private fantasy. They capture the anecdotes of a Provence youth in a scrapbook that all can take delight in. This brace of films is a gift to moviegoers too. It might have fallen into their arms out of an impossibly sunny sky.

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