Marseille Trilogy: Fanny

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Marseille Trilogy wordmarkGentle, humane, and embracing a full range from slapstick to tragedy, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy about the people of the Marseille waterfront – Marius, Fanny and César – has bewitched audiences for decades. Multiple remakes, including a recent reboot from French actor Daniel Auteuil, have never come close to eclipsing the reputation of the originals.

Pagnol was a schoolteacher until a stage comedy called ‘Topaze’ turned him into a highly successful playwright. His follow-up, ‘Marius’, began its run in 1929 just as talking pictures were crossing the Atlantic. At the time, many in the French film industry were dismayed by the upending of silent-movie traditions; Pagnol, on the contrary, saw splendid opportunity. 

Set in the Old Port section of Marseille, Marius’s action roams around the waterfront bar owned by César (played by the incomparable Raimu) and frequented by his friend Panisse (Charpin), a prosperous sailmaker. Outside the bar, Honorine (Alida Rouffe) and her daughter Fanny (Orane Demazis) work selling mussels. César’s son Marius (Pierre Fresnay of La Grande Illusion) and Fanny fall in love, but the young man has an incurable case of sea fever, and in the end he boards a boat that may not return for years, leaving Fanny alone and pregnant.

Original 1932 poster for FannyMarius was an enormous worldwide hit, and was followed almost immediately by its sequel, Fanny. Filmed in somewhat more subdued fashion, this chapter finds Fanny marrying Panisse, who dearly wants a son – only to have Marius return when the child is a toddler. The final instalment, César, jumps ahead to find Fanny and Marius entangled once more over their now-adult son.

The three films take their time developing their characters – their sacrifices and selfishness, their blustering arguments both verbal and physical, the lies they tell one another and also the truths. Of this garrulous, passionate group, it is Raimu who offers the keenest delight. A former music-hall performer, he acts with the whole of his lumbering, slouching body. His César is hot-tempered, mule-headed, and consistently hilarious.

As Panisse, Charpin is a worthy comic foil to Raimu: dignified, even pompous, but intensely lovable. Panisse is playing opposite César, not Fanny; their bumpy friendship is the most romantic aspect of the trilogy. During a protracted argument in Fanny, Panisse takes a gun from a drawer to intimidate César but winds up accidentally shooting a diving suit. ‘Let it be a lesson to you,’ says Panisse, with fervent intensity, ‘because I’ll kill you like I killed him.’

The movies aren’t entirely naturalistic. Rather, Pagnol gives the illusion of naturalism through the vivid energy and affection of his characters. ‘If Pagnol is not the greatest auteur of the sound film,’ wrote André Bazin, ‘he is in any case something akin to its genius.’

– Farran Smith Nehme, The Village Voice

Fanny : Sans nouvelles de Marius, Fanny découvre qu’elle est enceinte de Marius. Pour sauver l’honneur, Honorine la pousse à épouser Panisse, veuf, riche et très amoureux, qui est ravi d’avoir désormais, avec ce bébé, une descendance... toute faite. Mais, le bébé à peine né, Marius réapparait, guéri de son « envie du loin » et qui prétend reprendre Fanny et leur fils Césariot. Fanny, Panisse – et surtout César – s’y opposent et Marius doit s’incliner devant la détermination de son père.



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