Artisan French filmmaking of the 1930s has dominated cinephilic perceptions of the period in the U.S. and Europe for decades, at least since the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952 ranked Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Marcel Carné’s Le Jour Se Lève, both released in 1939, among the 10 greatest films ever made. Precise box-office receipts from the period are hard to come by without extensive archival research, but it’s well-known that The Rules of the Game wasn’t only a financial failure, but that the version released in theaters was a shortened cut of Renoir’s intentions. No such statement can be made about Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy, which was both a critical success during the five-year run across all three films and the biggest grosser in France during each film’s initial year of release.
Marius’s popularity in 1931 surely hinged on its accessibility to both bourgeois and proletarian audiences. The characters of Pagnol’s brightly lit, mostly outdoor-set tale of taboos in socially conservative Marseille are as marked by anxieties over their placement in surrounding France as their role where they currently reside. Marius (Pierre Fresnay), son of local barkeeper César (Raimu), longs to set sail with the merchant navy, where he hopes to fulfill boyhood fantasies of heroism and valor. Director Alexander Korda shoots Marius, whose rolled-up sleeves and hardheaded attitude are comparable to the immigrant gangsters in U.S. cinema from the period, in wide shots that allow the character’s actions to dictate the camera’s movement, which gives his restlessness more presence than if Korda’s camera were constantly in motion. That’s not to say the film’s style is stagnant either; in a particularly memorable tracking shot, César enters a building and quickly exits the other side, as the camera rushes to make its mark.
Such stylistic continuity aligns the trilogy more with artistically inclined (and also popular) Hollywood films from the period, such as 1931’s City Lights, in which a focus on lighting and performance supersede an interest in formal flourish. Take a confrontation between Marius and the elder Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who are bickering over their respective chances to court Fanny (Orane Demazis), the eligible daughter of Honorine (Alida Rouffe), a local mussels merchant. Korda frames their faces in close-up, their noses just inches apart. The claustrophobia of the framing works to thematize Pagnol’s overarching examination of how social mores in tight living quarters are passed from one generation to the next. The structure of the films repeatedly make this point, so that Fanny plays much like a remake of Marius, even though it picks narratively up where the first film leaves off.
The trilogy’s greatest product is César, whose psychological complexity unravels as he’s forced to confront that he may be responsible for Marius’s abandonment of a pregnant Fanny at the conclusion of the first film. As played by Raimu, he’s a man of expressions, scoffs, and faulty but affectionate logic. In his most congenial moments, he’s harmlessly botching the recipe for a proper cocktail, which he’s trying to pass on to a disinterested Marius. At his most broken, he’s confronting the prospect of failing to both provide the emotional support Marius needs and grappling with his own financial constraints, which leave him tethered to owning a bar. In César’s climactic scene, as Marius explains his turn to bar culture and a possible life of low-level crime, it’s all placed at Cesar’s feet as he looks on, silently making sense of both his son and grandson’s (André Fouché) disdain for their heritage.
Throughout the trilogy, individual scenes are less impressive unto themselves than as pieces of a larger comic tapestry. And despite the potentially tragic framework, Pagnol provides his characters numerous chances at redemption, particularly Marius, whose return in César marks his third attempted reconciliation with his extended family, including a son who’s remained unknown to him for over 20 years. These films also abound in memorable lines, and at their best, as when Marius claims that hunger makes you do “silly things,” they convey a combination of pathos and humor. An ear and eye for the quotidian distinguishes Pagnol’s writing throughout, but it’s his direction in César, the only installment written and directed exclusively for the screen, that fully solidifies his rank among the finest filmmakers of the era. As César looks on wistfully in the conclusion of the final film, viewers may be reminded of Charlie Chaplin, René Clair, or Ernst Lubitsch, but it’s wholly Pagnol’s gaze, placing what might translate in contemporary speech to a smiley face at the end of a long, passionate assessment of a city that’s still capable, despite systemic hardship, of spawning joy.
A meticulous restoration using state-of-the-art technology ensures that every frame of The Marseille Trilogy beams with a radiance that could only have been matched by seeing the films during their initial run. As overseen by Nicolas Pagnol, who used a crowdfunding campaign to raise over half of the necessary restoration funds, all evidence of dirt and damage have been excised, while grain and depth of field remain both fully legible and seemingly faithful to Pagnol's intentions. While the trilogy is more known for its writing than cinematography, these transfers may help to change that; outdoor shots glow with high-key light, which is perfectly modulated by the 4K technology. Signs of edge enhancement and digital scrubbing are minimal. The monaural track is slightly tinny at times, especially at times when music swells, but that's more a product of early sound technology than a restoration gaffe.
It may warrant an entire day to sufficiently parse through this box set's extras. Kicking things off is a lovely chat with Bertrand Tavernier, who explains how he discovered Pagnol's films by way of François Truffaut and why Pagnol and Sacha Guitry are the most modern French filmmakers of their generation. On the more biographical side, Nicolas Pagnol, Marcel's grandson, provides a half-hour discussion of Pagnol's filmmaking origins, with a particular focus on his pre-production approach to shot construction and camera placement. For the completist, 90 minutes are included from the nearly six-hour Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux Choisis, a 1973 documentary series on Pagnol's life and work, which covers the five years that Pagnol spent adapting and making the trilogy. Even more obscure is Marseille, a short 1935 doc about the Marseille harbor produced by Pagnol—an inclusion which helps concretize Pagnol's desire to make the city an essential component of the films. The most helpful extra is a half-hour video essay by film scholar Brett Bowles that contextualizes the films as progenitors of what became known as poetic realism. Rounding out the balanced diet of supplements is a television clip from 2015 about the restoration of the trilogy, the theatrical rerelease trailer, and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol's introductions to his plays and screenplays.
Long available only on insufficient DVD transfers and in tattered prints, The Marseille Trilogy finally arrives on Blu-ray boasting a radiant image and a boatload of extras worthy of Marcel Pagnol’s inimitable wit and style.