Criterion's 'The Marseilles Trilogy' Gives Us Binge-worthy, Sea-worthy Melodrama

by Sarah Boslaugh

8 August 2017

Marius, Fanny, and César offer a detailed portrait of the interlocking lives of a small cast of characters, most of whose lives are shaped in some way by the sea.
Marius (1931) (IMDB) 
cover art

The Marseille Trilogy

Director: Alexander Korda, Marc Allegret, Maurice Pagnol
Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Raimu, Orane Demazis, Fernand Charpin

US DVD: Jun 2017

Marius is a handsome young man with a secure place in the world, a wise and loving father, and a pretty neighbor who’s sweet on him. He could easily accept the station in life he was born to, which would encompass working in his father’s tavern, taking it over some day, marrying and raising a family, and growing old among people he’s known virtually all of his life. But Marius lives in Marseille, France’s chief Mediterranean port, and the call of the sea tempts him to chuck the comfort and stability of life on land for the travel and adventure of a sailor’s lot.

Such is the central conflict in Maurice Pagnol’s Mediterranean Trilogy, a hugely influential trio of films (Marius, 1931, Fanny, 1932, and Cesar, 1936) that offer a detailed portrait of the interlocking lives of a small cast of characters, most of whose lives are shaped in some way by the sea. Cesar (Raimu), Marius’ father, owns a seafront bar. Fanny (Orane Demazis), who wants to marry Marius, operates a fish stall. Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who wants to marry Fanny, sells ships’ sails. Escartefigue (Paul Dullac) runs a ferryboat. But of all these oceanside dwellers, only Marius (Pierre Fresnay) dreams of actually going to sea, a desire the others find largely incomprehensible.

The plot structure of the Marseilles Trilogy is pure melodrama, a characteristic it shares with many popular films of its day. In Marius, Marius and Panisse compete for the hand of Fanny. She chooses love over money, and after an intense late-night conversation in which Fanny declares her love for him, and Marius declares his desire to go to sea, they go to bed (indicated in a sequence worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, with crashing sea waves providing some obvious symbolism).

Fanny begins where Marius ended Maurius, as Marius sails off to sea and Fanny is left behind to explain what has happened. Her formidable mother (Alida Rouffe) is outraged, but Cesar is more understanding and accepts Fanny as his future daughter in law. Moving forward a few weeks, Fanny learns she is pregnant, a condition that, according to the conservative society in which she lives, is completely incompatible with her unmarried state. When Cesar says “Honor is a match. It can only be used once,” he’s referring not just to obvious fact that virginity cannot be restored, but also to the way his society is eager to discard women who are perceived to have violated moral rules.

And yet, not everyone in this little world is so judgmental. When Fanny tells Panisse what has happened, not only does he still want to marry her, he’s delighted that she is pregnant and is eager to raise the child as his own.

Fanny (1932)

Fanny (1932)

César picks up 20 years later. Panisse, now in his 70s, is sick in bed, while Cesariot, the baby conceived in the first film, is on the brink of adulthood. Meanwhile, Marius is working in a garage in Toulon and has no contact with his son. The local priest insists Cesariot be told the truth about his parentage; upon receiving that news, he heads to Toulon under an assumed identity to learn what he can about his father.

The films of the Mediterranean trilogy are like separate chapters in a very long book and are best viewed consecutively (running a bit over six and a half hours combined, they make for excellent bingeing). It’s remarkable how well continuity is maintained from one film to the next, particularly considering that each film had a different director (Alexandre Korda directed Marius, Marc Allegret Fanny, and Pagnol César). The unity of these films is aided by the fact that Pagnol wrote all three screenplays (the first two were adaptations of his own plays) as well as the fact that the principal roles are played by the same actors in all three films. 

The literary and theatrical concerns of Pagnol are evident throughout, as these films prioritize good acting, excellent production design, and intelligently-written dialogue over action or spectacle. As is typical of melodrama, they are also richly populated with familiar character types: one of the sailors might as well be wearing a sign saying “grizzled old salt” and Fanny’s mother fits neatly into the stereotype of “overly dramatic older woman”. The pace is leisurely, with much of each film devoted to people talking to each other or going about their undramatic daily lives, making these films a sort of cinematic time capsule of Marseille in the ‘30s. The picture presented is not inclusive, however: women other than Fanny and her mother don’t figure in it, and neither does Marseille’s substantial nonwhite population.

All three films are presented in 4K restorations, with uncompressed mono soundtracks, and while the picture quality is excellent in Marius and César, this print of Fanny frequently suffers from blurriness and loss of definition. The Marius disc includes a 2017 video introduction by Bertrand Tavernier (20 min.), a 2017 video interview with Nicolas Pagnol, Marcel Pagnol’s grandson and archivist (30 min.), a video essay by Brett Bowles on Pagnol and poetic realism (30 min.), and the trailer for the theatrical re-release of the trilogy.

The Fanny disc includes excerpts from a biography of a Pagnol created for French television in 1973 (85 min.). The César disc includes a 1967 French TV interview with Orane Demazis 4 min.), a clip of Pierre Fresnay’s first television appearance, in 1956 (6 min.), a 1976 French TV profile of Robert Vattier (11 min.), a 1935 “documentary romance” about the Marseille harbor directed by Pagnol (12 min.), and a featurette on the restoration of the trilogy (2 min.). The set also includes an illustrated 56-page book featuring an essay by Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol’s memoirs.

The Marseille Trilogy

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