The Little Things: Marcel Pagnol's "Marseilles Trilogy"

Pagnol's extraordinary trio of "Marius," "Fanny," and "César" overflow with charming loves, camaraderie, and grandiloquent enthusiasm.
Jeremy Carr

With a new restoration of Marcel Pagnol's "Marseilles Trilogy" coming to art-house cinemas, MUBI is showing three later Pagnol adaptations: Joshua Logan's Fanny (1961) and Daniel Auteuil's Fanny (2013) and Marius (2013) in the United States.

The sea calls to Marius like a siren song, a tantalizing beckon to a life of mobility, exhilaration, and maritime adventure. It is a life far from his current reality, slinging drinks in his father’s shoreline bar, but it is a tempting existence that forever fills his fantasies and directs his path forward. Little wonder, really. The port of Marseilles is teeming with the influence of a sailor’s life, from the towering ships, their sails and masts hovering above the liquid horizon, to the shopfront interiors adorned with innumerable images of nautical signification, paintings and model ships that testify to the lifeblood of this city. Lifeblood, maybe, but also a curse. For Marius (Pierre Fresnay), his father, Cesar (Raimu), and Fanny (Orane Demazis), the fish-peddling object of Marius’s affection, the young man’s desire to set sail becomes the cause for sweeping ruin, at least for a time.

This trio, each of whom lend their names to a film in Marcel Pagnol’s extraordinary French trilogy of Marius (Alexander Korda, 1931), Fanny (Marc Allegret, 1932), and César (Pagnol, 1936), are joined by pillars of the community and pivotally recurring characters like Honoré Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a pompous sail store owner, Honorine Cabanis (Alida Rouffe), Fanny’s assertively blunt mother, and Félix Escartefigue (Paul Dullac), a placid ferryboat captain. Save for Marius, their personal routines are pleasantly fortified. Escartefigue, for example, does little more than traverse the harbor (he decries a recently erected bridge that now allows people to cross on their own). But he is satisfied with what he does—there is no need to be so bold as to head out to sea, he argues. Like most in the city, this is what he knows and this is all he really wants to know. They are accustomed to the habitually timeworn and are comfortable keeping their ambitions in check. Only Marius is burdened by the suffocating stagnation, his struggle between drive and stability a thematic refrain that reverberates throughout the series.

The tight-knit familiarity of this immediate circle hums to the sound of everyday banality, colloquial banter, good humor, and provincial gossip. Friendships last a lifetime in the world of Pagnol’s trilogy, secretive mistresses are seldom kept secret for long, and rumors are promptly investigated and swiftly confirmed. Running counter to Marius’s longings are his father’s old-ways contentment and Fanny’s ideas of idle domesticity (she is certain she can love Marius so much he will be “cured”). With one cigarette in his mouth and another tucked behind his ear, Marius is the quintessential modern young Frenchman, deemed “soft” and a “slacker” by César, who disparages the changing times embodied by his boy. Yet while the widowed father may be at perpetual odds with his son, their embattled worldviews often remain amiable, as do many of the negligible antagonisms in these three films.  

One such conflict concerns Marius and Panisse, who also fancies the 30-years-his-junior Fanny. Though the relationship between the love-struck younger couple is on relatively firm footing to start, when Marius’s occupational passions drive them apart and he sets off on a five-year trip to Australia, Panisse steps in to secure the honor of Fanny by marrying the girl, who, it is revealed at the start of Fanny, which picks up just seconds after Marius concludes, has been left with child. As César and Fanny struggle with Marius’s absence, grappling with the void in both their lives, the wealthy Panisse, who has kept signage reading “& Fils” ready and waiting to be added to the front of his store, is keen to be a father. Young Césariot is born to the joyous bells of Easter Sunday, but Fanny’s emotional conclusion yields a contentious clash when Marius returns home and hopes to reclaim his former sweetheart and their son. César picks up twenty years later. Panisse is dying and César hasn’t seen Marius, now residing in Toulon, for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Césariot (André Fouché) returns from school and, upon discovering the nature of his birth and his parental lineage, sets off in search for his true father.

Already a famed playwright, Pagnol became enraptured by the cinema in 1926, and promptly contacted Paramount Pictures with the proposed adaption of his 1928 play, Marius. Though he never intended to write a sequel to this downbeat standalone work, Pagnol was persuaded to write a follow-up play, Fanny, which was then filmed in rapid succession. César, on the other hand, was written just for the screen. These three films, all bustling with the essence of the Marseilles waterfront familiar to Pagnol, overflow with charming loves, endearing camaraderie, and grandiloquent enthusiasm punctuated by characteristically French gesticulations and guttural exclamations. As predictable as the squabbling born from such contained social proximity, the constancy of character is an engaging refreshment. It does not take long for Pagnol and the fine cast to ingratiate these individuals, and as the films progress, the familiar faces grow as welcome and as recognizable as one’s own family. 

As localized as the setting and these people are, however—each evolving in accordance to the other—there is something universal in their thoughts, interactions, and individual tragedies. Part of why Marius, Fanny, and César are so affecting is because they are so relatable. With no real villain to speak of, and almost seven total hours with which to flesh-out the various characters, Pagnol’s narrative foundation encourages the tossing aside of moral judgment with a Renoir-esque acceptance that “everyone has their reasons.” While occasionally melodramatic and at times nearly violent, the acrimony is almost always understandable. When César and Honorine confront one another about the situation of Marius and Fanny, the overriding motivation is that they believe, as parents are wont to do, that their respective child is too good for the other and the other is not good enough for their own. It doesn’t hurt that no matter their dire dilemmas, and certainly, Marius and especially Fanny go through a good deal, the films themselves remain vibrantly optimistic, with a cheerful persistence.

“In Marseilles,” says Marius, “nothing comes harder than work.” Similarly, these films take their time, making sure to supplant in the drama properly ample space for joking digressions and an informal laze-away-the-day realism. César’s boisterously high emotions are capricious, sometimes in the span of the same outburst, but that variability mirrors the gracefully juxtaposed outrage of the series in general; characters will get angry and breathlessly passionate, but the film itself—grounded, cautious, unflappable—refuses a wholly agitated tone. Relegated largely to the margins of the story, Fanny’s Aunt Claudine (Milly Mathis) suggests such potential flexibility when, after hearing of her niece being in the family way, reminds everyone that dinner is still served: “I know it’s a tragedy, but we can still eat, no?” There is comparably somber lightness in the face of Panisse’s death, which allows Charpin some of the films’ best one-liners: “Some things shouldn’t be said in front of a lady, even if ladies were involved,” states the confessional Panisse, and “If a salesman always told the truth, he’d never do any business.”

Though each film in the trilogy is directed by a different filmmaker, with slight degrees of formal variation, primarily in terms of camera placement and movement verses a static, theatrical mise en scène, the omnipresent setting remains a resolute geographical and pictorial constant. Korda, Allegret, and Pagnol situate each of their contributions firmly in Marseilles, capitalizing on a visual and aural depth that emerges naturally from the seaside commotion, the market-lined sidewalks, and the clattering of cobblestone streets. (César steps away from the city, but only to stress that Marius is not literally or symbolically “home.”) The atmospheric accessibility makes the confined interiors that much more intimate and intense.

Derivative of single films in the cycle or the series in total, international remakes and adaptations of Pagnol’s “Marseilles Trilogy” have existed from 1938 to as recently as a 2013 production. What keeps the material so ripe for revisitation is the allure of this affable company and their workaday dramas. It is also Pagnol’s devotion to the elusive details of life, the fleeting moments and trifling actions that frequently yield the most impassioned of memories. As it deals with Panisse’s death and the reconciliation between an older and wiser Fanny and Marius, César in particular exhibits a reflexive stance. Starting with his ten-commandment checklist of sins, Panisse voices contemplations concerning mortality and the considerate emotions associated with aged insight. Conversely, Fanny and Marius are offered renewed possibility, to settle their relationship once and for all, to put things right in their lives and, in effect, this cinematic triptych. Cautioned by César that, “Youth flies by and never comes back,” at just age 40 by the end of the three films, they have a full life ahead of them. Moving beyond the dashed dreams of youth and the pain of past transgressions, Fanny and Marius are granted redemption through second chances. For them, this is just the beginning.

Panisse reveals he is not so much afraid of dying as he is “scared to stop living.” He cites soon to be abandoned pleasures such as family, friends, and food, of course, but also the comparatively minor niceties of life, those eliciting a subtler joy: shaving, the view, his corn that forecasts the weather. “I’ll miss the little things,” he summarizes, attesting to the trilogy’s delicate simplicity. We will all miss the little things, which is why we should be grateful for films like Marius, Fanny, and César, films built on the rich, satisfying, and ephemeral aspects of humanity.

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