In the ’60s and early ’70s, art films seemed to offer the cinematic version of psychotherapy. Impassioned film buffs caught the latest Bergman, Herzog, or Bertolucci in order to plunge, vicariously, into the outer limits of human experience. This could mean exploring anything from the tantalizing abyss of adult sexual love (Last Tango in Paris) to revolutionary political fervor (State of Siege) to the internal nature of madness (Persona). You weren’t just going to the movies; you were breaking on through to the other side.
Times have changed. The exploratory psychology of European cinema has long since congealed into a comfy middle-class complacency. Which makes My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle the perfect art films for the ’90s. Adapted from the memoirs of beloved French playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, this two-part daydream — a rapturously idealized portrait of a happy childhood — is at once an unabashed celebration of bourgeois family life and a sun-spangled anti-Freudian reverie. It’s refreshing, in a way, to see two movies so utterly cleansed of the Dark Side. For true happiness is, of course, anything but a simple state; it has its own mysteries. The trouble with My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle is that, as directed by veteran French farceur Yves Robert (The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, 1972), they’re not really accomplished acts of storytelling. One can be moved, at times, by their upbeat spirit and still wish that their wistful, anecdotal narratives had been more finely tuned.
My Father’s Glory is the more satisfying. It’s about how the 11-year-old Marcel (Julien Ciamaca), a precocious scamp, discovers the magical wilderness of Provence during his family’s summer vacation. Marcel’s father, Joseph (Philippe Caubere), is a gentle, enthusiastic schoolteacher-a dream of a dad-whom the boy reveres. His mother, Augustine (Nathalie Roussel), is a pretty seamstress. (It’s a major flaw in both films that she remains a completely undeveloped character.) There’s also Jules, a burly, feisty, life-force kind of guy — the actor, Didier Pain, suggests a Gallic Lech Walesa — who woos Marcel’s aunt and, in a touching scene, waltzes with her in the summer rain. He soon becomes part of the family, and this sets up the closest thing in My Father’s Glory to an actual dramatic event.
Jules, an experienced gamesman, takes the klutzy Joseph out to hunt rock partridges. Marcel can’t abide the notion that his father is an amateur shot. It spoils his perfect picture of the man. Even this, though, is quickly resolved — in an episode that sums up the appeal of the two-part epic. When the two men shoot simultaneously at a couple of partridges, Joseph allows himself to be convinced that it was his gun that brought them down. Marcel recovers his idealization of Joseph, only now with the knowledge that his father’s true ”glory” is that he’s human, vain, and bourgeois, a fellow capable of comical self-deception.
In My Mother’s Castle, the family returns to Provence, this time on regular weekend trips. Marcel develops a crush on a local girl and convinces himself that she’s a princess. She, taking full advantage of his ardor, begins playfully treating him as her slave. Then she disappears from the movie. In the second half, the family, in order to get to their cottage, learn of an illicit route, trekking across the backyards of several country estates. Then they’re discovered — but nothing much comes of this, either.
Robert, perhaps following in the footsteps of Claude Berri (who directed 1986’s two-part Pagnol hit, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring), seems to think he can simply sprinkle Pagnol’s words and incidents across the screen. His relentless use of voice-over is lazy and irritating; the film keeps telling us things it should be showing. What’s more, Pagnol’s sunniness gets gloppy and one-note — at least, until the dark postscript, an unearned epiphany that seems to come crashing in from another movie entirely. This jarringly downbeat finale, in which we learn how several of the characters died (and at all too young an age), informs us that ”such is the life of man — a few joys, quickly obliterated by unforgettable sorrows.” The words are meant to seal Pagnol’s message: that life is a dream, one that ends too quickly. That message might carry more weight, though, if the two movies it followed added up to something more than the art-house equivalent of a nice warm bath. B