Films can at times be intensely enjoyable without actually being good. This is the case for “The Well Digger’s Daughter,” a lushly simple story of love and pride set in the pre-World War II French countryside. The film excels in its bucolic cinematography and classic tale of broken hearts, but this simplicity is far too one-dimensional and archetypal to provide any real merit.

The Well Digger’s Daughter

At the Michigan
Kino Lorber

Daniel Auteuil (“The Lookout”) directs and stars as Pascal Amoretti, an uneducated well digger who thrives on his pride for his eldest daughter and his antiquated sense of honor. Widowed years before and left to raise six daughters by himself, the resolutely masculine Pascal relies heavily on Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, “The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), his ingenuously sweet 18-year-old daughter, to handle the “womenfolk” duties.

Of course, according to standard, Patricia is the beauty of the county, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Pascal or Jacques, the debonair and devilish rich boy (Nicolas Duvauchelle, “Polisse”). Jacques gets Patricia pregnant (gasp!) and then is abruptly sent off the war. The loving farewell note he entrusts his arrogant mother to give to Patricia is cruelly burned, a lá “The Notebook.”

The film falters here, as these promising characters in this beautifully transparent setting never fully form and quickly delineate into stereotypes. Patricia is the guileless, naïve ingénue, Jacques is her slimy and equivocating baby daddy, Pasqual is the loving but unyielding father who can’t forgive his daughter. This story has been done before, and despite its surface charms, falls flat.

Many complex issues are touched on, but never analyzed at a deeper level. Director Auteuil scratches at the striking class differences between Jacques’s pretentious “town” family and the Amoretti’s simple hardworking ways, but never strengthens the line beyond rich vs. poor, monocle-wearing rich guy vs. dirt-spattered working man.

Similarly, Patricia is heavily ostracized, in particular by her own father, for bearing a bastard child, while Jacques remains free and clear with no responsibility. Sadly, Auteuil does not allow us to enter her head and understand the deep pain and loneliness she must feel. Instead the film sinks into melodrama, pinning Patricia as the love-addled sobbing young mother and Pascal as her blustering and corpulent master.

The best parts of this film are the few subdued moments, when the characters are allowed simply to be, and not to take on a grandiose paradigm. When Pascal and Patricia stand in their simple kitchen, and she tells him in a few agonizing words of her condition, there is an honest understanding between them that eloquently rises above the melodrama. In these lucid scenes, the sweeping yet placid beauty of the Provence landscape is most evident and the Amorettis seem most at peace in their quiescent world. More than anything else Pascal is a man of great pride, and in these scenes it’s apparent why — he’s an uncomplicated man who’s unburdened with great intelligence, but he reigns over his small pastoral world with equal honor and love.

Unfortunately, these moments are easily lost in the loud and unnecessary plot traps that become gradually larger and less relatable as the film progresses. This story is rarely ambiguous or subtle, so every action is either inconsequential or grand and life altering.

The love story loses its intimacy, Pascal abruptly contradicts the very edicts he stood by so strongly at the beginning of the film, and Patricia never seems to gain wisdom despite her great trials. Though there is much beauty to be found in the decisive simplicity of the film, in the end it only becomes redundant. “The Well Digger’s Daughter” had the potential to be a nuanced, crystalizing film, but instead it falls trap to the archetypal stories of love and loss that we’ve grown bored of.

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