See our Best of Detroit 2020 winners.

The Well Digger's Daughter 

On the shallow end — Pretty French film lacks real depth

click to enlarge 1386794.jpg

The Well Digger's Daughter| B-

Gorgeously shot, old fashioned in its storytelling, and sentimental as hell, French film star Daniel Auteuil's directorial debut is an unabashed throwback to the tidy, populist melodramas of yesteryear.

With the film set in Provence on the eve of World War I, Auteuil plays Pascal, a humble, well-digging widower and father to five daughters. His eldest and loveliest, 18-year-old Patricia (pouty-lipped Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is seduced by a dashing young pilot named Jacques, whose father owns the general store. When Jacques is suddenly called up for duty, he leaves a note for Patricia declaring his good intentions. Of course, his mother burns the note, leaving the well digger's daughter heartbroken. Worse, she discovers she's pregnant. Hand wringing, tears and family shame ensue.

Marcel Pagnol's source novel must have been pretty scandalous stuff in the 1940s, but here the story seems quaint and a bit overwrought. Though Auteuil's affection and enthusiasm for the material shines through every frame of the film and his cast is first-rate, his approach is simple and unchallenging, never daring to re-imagine the story as anything other than the melodrama is was constructed to be. Compare this to the Pagnol adaptations that launched his career as an actor — Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring — and the contrast couldn't be starker. Those two films had an epic sense of tragedy, unveiling the best and worst of human behavior in the most modest of settings. The Well Digger's Daughter has plenty of conflict, but none of it seems particularly high stakes. Auteuil is all too happy to drink in the bucolic, sun-dappled landscape of Provence, but rarely lingers on the emotional complexities of his characters. Nearly every one is portrayed with some level of decency, even if they make terrible mistakes. This could have provided an interesting exploration into human nature — particularly at a time when gender and class roles were being challenged — but instead renders the story weightless and, ultimately, inconsequential.

Still, there are incidental delights for those who cotton to this sort of thing. Auteuil is both dignified and commanding as Pascal, the old-school story is delivered with heartfelt sincerity, and there's a kind of modest Masterpiece Theater charm that'll appeal to audiences hungering for simple emotions and a reassuring sense of humanity.


Shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, and at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900).


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 21, 2020

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit