Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources
(France, 1986)

This is another "two for one" pick in the Top 100, but it's easy enough to justify. Together, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (or, if you prefer, Manon of the Spring) represent a masterful telling of a single story. The split occurred because director Claude Berri believed that four hours was too long for viewers to comfortably sit in theaters, and he did not want to randomly cut scenes to make things shorter. This is sort of the same approach Miramax/Tarantino is taking for Kill Bill (except that it's harder to justify cutting a three-hour movie in half than a four-hour one with a natural break point). Jean/Manon has been a favorite of mine for a long time, although I didn't see it during its theatrical release. I watched Berri's films after being enraptured by the Daniel Auteuil/Emmanuelle Béart chemistry in Un Coeur en Hiver. Recognizing that they had previously appeared in Manon, I rented it. Before viewing it, I discovered that Jean was a prerequiste, so I rented that as well. Since then, I have owned copies of the movies in all three major formats: VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. I find the film so engaging that I am often able to sit through all four hours with only a brief interruption at the intermission. There are only two other four-hour movies I can make that claim for: Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Ron Maxwell's Gettysburg. On balance, Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources offers a better motion picture experience than either. It is beautiful, sublime, and emotionally powerful. In short, it is unforgettable.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Jean de Florette begins by introducing us to the two characters around which the entire story revolves. They are Cesar Soubeyran (Yves Montand), a wealthy landowner in rural France, and his only living relative, a nephew named Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil). Since Cesar never fathered any children (or so he believes), Ugolin is the last of the Soubeyrans, and, more than anything else, Cesar is devoted to the continuation of his proud bloodline. So, even though Ugolin is ugly, tentative, and slow on the uptake, Cesar aids and mentors him, intending to set him up financially so that he can attract a healthy wife who will bear him many children. Ugolin has his heart set on developing a carnation farm (rather than raising animals or food), and, when Cesar learns how much the flowers are worth, he wholeheartedly supports the endeavor. But there is a problem. Carnations require copious amounts of water during the withering heat of the long, hot summer - far more than Ugolin's well can provide. There is a nearby spring, but it is on Ugolin's next-door neighbor's property, and he refuses to sell. After the man's "sudden" death, Cesar feels certain that Ugolin will be able to buy the property from the heirs, but, to be sure, the two of them block up the spring, making the property next-to-useless for farming purposes. Nevertheless, the new owner of the property, Jean Cadoret (Gerard Depardieu), the son of Florette, an old flame of Cesar's, has dreams of living off the land and raising rabbits. So, despite the paucity of water, he brings his wife, Aimee (Elisabeth Depardieu), and daughter, Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna), to live there. Seeking to find ways to encourage Jean to leave and sell him the land, Ugolin befriends the former city-dweller, but stands by and says nothing as Jean's quest for water ultimately results in his death.

Manon des Sources begins ten years after Jean de Florette ends. Ugolin is a prosperous man, but Cesar is worried that he is still unmarried. Manon (now played by Emmanuelle Béart) has become a recluse, living the life of a shepherdess in the wilds near the village. One day, Ugolin spies her bathing nude and is instantly lovestruck. He begins an inept courtship, but Manon finds him repulsive. Simultaneously, she is attracted to a newcomer to the town, Bernard Olivier (Hippolyte Girardot). Then the past returns to haunt Cesar and Ugolin, as it is revealed that the two conspired to hide the spring's existence from Jean, causing his death. Learning of this, Manon embarks upon a course of revenge. By the end of the film, Ugolin has hanged himself and Cesar has had the most bitter shock imaginable. Jean Cadoret, the man he worked so assiduously to destroy, was his son by Florette. The Soubeyran line thus ends because of his own actions.

Although released with a three month separation in France and a four month gap in the United States, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, form a single, unbroken narrative. The natural "intermission" at the end of the first film allows the experience to be split, but it's hard to imagine anyone watching Jean de Florette and not moving on to Manon des Sources, and under no circumstances should the second movie be seen first. In this case, the order isn't just important, it's paramount. I would be the first to admit that a story detailing the water-related tribulations of a rural farming community doesn't sound interesting. But that's not really what Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources is about. Those are the trappings that establish the story, but the meat of the film explores the complexity of human actions and interactions. Berri is sympathetic to all the characters, including those who act from less-than-noble motives. He challenges us to accept these individuals and their plights, and to spend time in their company. The twists taken by the narrative, the quality of the performances, the superlative cinematography, and Berri's masterful direction make this one of the best motion pictures ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Full Review:
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IMDb Entry (Jean de Florette):
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IMDb Entry (Manon des Sources):
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