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JEAN DE FLORETTE

               

From the Oct. 9, 1987, Deseret News

JEAN DE FLORETTE — Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil; rated PG (violence, profanity)

"Jean de Florette" is the first half of a two-movie series, the second of which will be released here in a few months. And the measure of its success is obvious: When this picture is over you don't want it to be. That second installment can't come too soon.

For a film that seems so soft and laconic in its physical structure, it's quite amazing to consider in retrospect how tough "Jean de Florette" is regarding its subject — human nature.

This is about the evil that men do, with greed as motivation. But subtly. We're not talking about assassination or torture here but rather the devious means by which people plot to get what they want, regardless of whom they hurt in the process.

The time is the early 1920s in rural France. Wealthy farmer Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand) is getting old and he knows he will soon be leaving his land to his nephew, Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil).

Ugolin, having just returned from the military, plants a small field of carnations to impress his uncle. He does impress him — when the carnations readily sell. But both come to realize that the thirsty plants will need more water than the other crops, so they decide to try and buy adjoining farmland where there is a natural spring that has gone unused for years.

When the owner of that land is killed, they plug up the spring and wait to buy the land from whomever inherits it.

Enter Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu), the grandson of a woman Cesar loved years before. A hunchback, strong as an ox and determined to live off the land with his wife and daughter, Jean is also a city-bred tax collector who has no farming skills. What he has are how-to books. And he is quite the laughing stock in his neighbors' eyes as he works the ground wearing his hat, vest and gloves all the while.

Jean also knows there was once a natural spring on the land, but though he has a map, he still can't find it. Needless to say, since he has frustrated Cesar's plans to take over the land, Jean gets no help from his neighbor. But Cesar is a patient man. He will wait for Jean to fail in his endeavor, then he will buy the land from him — and probably cheaper.

While Cesar stays in the background, he encourages his nephew to befriend Jean so he can keep an eye on him, and perhaps offer a few well-placed stumbling blocks. Ugolin does as his uncle suggests, though he cannot help but come to like Jean and regret his own actions.

What follows is a series of alternately humorous and tragic vignettes, which, in the end, set up the second film. But to reveal much more would spoil what is, from opening scene to closing shot, a surprising and utterly engrossing cinematic experience.

"Jean de Florette" is an incredibly moving film, and you will come to love Jean and his family so much, it's hard to believe Cesar and Ugolin could be so heartless toward them. In that regard, Montand and especially Auteuil offer incredible performances, and everyone in the cast is utterly convincing.

But once again it is Depardieu who is mesmerizing in his naturalness on film. Here, very much unlike most of his tough-guy screen roles, Depardieu is the gentlest, most trusting of souls — which makes his defeat all the more heartbreaking.

"Jean de Florette" is a superb exercise in good, straightforward storytelling. Co-written and directed by Claude Berri, there is a no-nonsense approach to the material that just lets the story unfold before us, and we are swept away.

It is rated PG for violence and profanity, and not much of either.