Tragic Comedy, by Aaron Pinkston
A remake of a 1940’s Marcel Pagnol film, The Well-Digger’s Daughter is as old-fashioned filmmaking as you can get. Not only does the film deal with issues and themes in ways we don’t consider in this modern time, it is made with such simplicity and so understated that it feels like could have been made 70 years ago. In the film, the 18-year-old daughter of a well digger (hence the title) has a brief affair with the son of a wealthy shopkeeper. Due to the differences in their background and an impending war, the lovers are driven apart. But when the young woman discovers that she is pregnant, she is forced to leave the security of her family.
Though this plot may sound melodramatic, I can’t tell if The Well-Digger’s Daughter is a comedy or a drama. It’s perfectly reasonable for a film to straddle both tones, but here the film seems like it can’t quite choose. Given the nature of the plot, it would make sense for it to be staged heavily dramatic, but it was actually the comedic sensibilities that I was drawn to. Perhaps it was part intention of making a more subdued film or a problem with Auteuil’s shooting style, but the dramatic scenes never quite have the punch they should, given their circumstances. Though there aren’t many arguments in the film, when they occur they have a stagnant tone — no one in the film talks over each other, and these scenes are played in shot-reverse shot, which give odd pauses in between the heated discussions.
The directorial debut of veteran actor Daniel Auteuil, he shows that he can tell a story and use beautiful locations, but he doesn’t bring any style to the filmmaking. As you would expect from an actor-turned-director, the performances are solid throughout and across the board. Auteuil also stars in the film as the well digger, and though he is a stable presence on the screen, many of the dramatic plot struggles come from his character. Like many moments of the film itself, you could never tell if his character is being overly dramatic seriously or comically. The young star, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, is a delight to watch in every scene — she brings the perfect balance of beauty and innocence the film needs to have any success.
Thankfully, the final act of the film fully establishes and delivers the tone that I wish the entire film was able to present. Once it is able to get through the dramatic stuff that it was never really able to give any density, a charming and sweet ending redeems the film in a lot of ways. Overall, The Well-Digger’s Daughter doesn’t entrust any great future as a filmmaker for Auteuil, but it provides enough old-fashioned entertainment to please on the most minor levels.