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The Well-Digger's Daughter

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The Well-Digger's Daughter

By all rights we should be furious at this film. It is reactionary and sexist and makes little attempt to hide it. Women are helpless children handed from fathers to suitors and any step they take toward independence is met with ruin. But when the movie is French, is the directing debut of a beloved actor like Daniel Auteuil, and is based on 70 year old source material, it not only gets a pass, but it cashes in on sentimental nostalgia for classic cinema and, perhaps, uncluttered social structures. It may not be right, but the notion that “they don't really mean it” grants us the freedom to stretch out and dig in to a tale that we ought to reject.

So what do we get when we trade in a little bit of our souls for this one? The Well-Digger's Daughter opens gorgeously. A field is littered with flowers as a sunny, nubile young woman (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, or the mermaid from the last Pirates of the Caribbean if you swing that way) walks along carrying a picnic basket. She comes to a difficult to cross stream, and a young, blonde, well-bred young man rather gallantly lifts her to the other side. We'll meet this man again.

The young woman is bringing lunch to her father (who digs wells, don't'cha know) and his assistant, who couldn't look more French if he were drawn by Chuck Jones. It being her 18th birthday, her father realizes she will soon, no doubt, take a husband. He, a widower with five additional daughters, does not want his eldest to leave. His co-worker, delighted with her good manners and pale skin, offers himself up as a husband who would at least not take her far from home.

The father agrees, but on a set-up in town, the petite jeune fille is quickly wooed away by the rakish lad from the creek, who happens to be the son of a local well-off merchant. I need not detail you with les affaires des coeur, suffice to say that, after some lush images of a sunset over a field of wheat, our heroine soon finds herself a) truly, madly, deeply in love and b) in a family way.

Bad timing because: whoopsie, the First World War! Not only that, but an overbearing mother who refuses to pass along a letter from our handsome hearthrob who's also (swoon!) an aviator.

The rest of the picture carries on in a traditional Masterpiece Theater fashion, but the focus is primarily on Auteuil as the working class hero father. He becomes obsessed with the value of his good name, such that he storms his extended family into the home of the shopkeepers', demanding some sort of satisfaction. When he receives none, he's quick to blame the victim and excommunicates his daughter. (Luckily, she has an Aunt who is also a “fallen woman.”)

Auteuil's speeches are well-written and even more expertly delivered, so much so that I couldn't quite tell if he was meant to be a villain or not. Certainly a modern context would paint him as such, but here, I'm not quite sure. I mean, if egocentric, short-sighted, emotionally crippling fathers aren't going to fight for their daughters hymens WHO WILL!?

Luckily, all's well that ends well, and, more strangely, there's a good chance you'll be rooting for its harmonized status quo. Blame it on my Francophilia, but I still managed to like all the characters at play – even the bitchy rich mother.

I watched The Well-Digger's Daughter during late hours and when I put my head to pillow that night I dreamed of meadows in Provence, handsome blonde pilots returning from the war, summer dresses, tailored hats, red wine from unlabeled bottles and sweet, simple Patriarchy. It's okay to have strange fantasies once in a while, n'est pas?

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