There’s nothing egregiously wrong with The Well-Digger’s Daughter, which marks the debut of veteran actor Daniel Auteuil as a writer-director in a remake of a 1940 film by Marcel Pagnol, who with both pen and camera served as the Dickens of early 20th-century southern France. In revisiting the oeuvre of this humanist author of page, stage, and screen, Auteuil reconnects with his own worldwide breakthrough in the mid ’80s in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, a diptych based on a novel by Pagnol. But while also leading a solid ensemble cast as the middle-aged well digger Pascale, a loving though instinctively moralistic widower in World War I-era Provence, he hasn’t sufficiently reimagined or given new weight to the material. It plays as a serious comedy of the Old World, perhaps most truthful in how traditional patriarchs anchored their legacies with male children and were primed to be disappointed in daughters, but director of photography Jean-François Robin’s golden images of the bucolic landscape notwithstanding, it seems scripted, shot, and acted as it might’ve been 70 years ago. (Alexandre Desplat’s middling score does add contemporary string-based flavor, though his title theme curiously suggests the Rosemary’s Baby lullaby.)
In counterpoint to his signature key of harried urbanity, Auteuil inhabits this unshaven peasant role with visceral authority, entertaining the suit of his genial assistant, Félipe (Kad Merad), to marry Pascale’s second-eldest daughter, Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, an ingenue who delivers noble suffering with a minimum of contrivance). Scandal is launched when the girl is seduced by the prosperous local merchant’s son, Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle, cleaning up real nice for a bland part), who’s promptly called to military duty and goes missing in action before Patricia becomes pregnant. Auteuil’s adaptation is an hour shorter than Pagnol’s original film, and its middle third is crowded with a series of “big” scenes as Pascale is wounded by his child’s crisis, presents her to no avail to the soldier’s parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Sabine Azéma), reluctantly but coolly sends her to live with an aunt in order to avoid shame (declaring that society has judged her “a lost girl”), and then reconsiders the estrangement after one look at his burbling grandson. Merad and Darroussin are particularly fine as men who fill their social roles with lightness and stolidity, respectively, but The Well-Digger’s Daughter ultimately comes off as curiously anecdotal, lacking the dramatic dynamism that could give Pagnol’s tale new life.