The prolific and versatile Auteuil - surely France's busiest actor after Gerard Depardieu - had 32 film roles before he snared the role of Ugolin, the rat-faced villain of Claude Berri's 1986 two-part saga Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources - arthouse blockbusters that were, at that time, the most expensive French films ever made.
It was that Bafta-winning performance that introduced him to English-speaking audiences and he's scarcely been out of sight since, demonstrating a mastery of every genre from farce (The Valet) to high-brow thrillers (Hidden) and the cop dramas the French call policiers.
Here he pays tribute to writer and film-maker Marcel Pagnol, whose novels were the basis of the Berri films, making his debut as director with a remake Pagnol's own 1940 film about a proud Provencal working man who will do anything to defend the honour of his family.
It's a handsome period piece, which is much more than it seems and stands out from others of its ilk because of its minute eye for detail and the emotional richness of its relationships. In scene after scene, the terrific cast deals with dialogue that is by turns funny and profound, creating characters who are densely and authentically human.
Auteuil himself plays Pascal, whose occupation as a digger and cleaner of rural wells links to the water motif that drove the Jean de Florette stories. He's a widower who delights in his quintet of daughters, the eldest of whom, Patricia (Berges-Frisbey), has caught the eye of Pascal's labourer, Felipe (Merad). She in turn is swept off her feet by Jacques (Duvauchelle), the dashing pilot son of a bourgeois merchant family.
The story that unfolds, which mixes elements of melodrama and ethnography, replays the eternal story of love across class barriers but there is something more elemental at play here too: it's a folk tale about honour and pride and the damage that words spoken and feelings left unsaid can do.
Auteuil is at the hub of an excellent ensemble: pig-headed and loving, wise and impulsive, he's a chubby, grubby and wholly enjoyable presence. Smaller roles are also wonderfully handled, notably Darroussin (the cop in Le Havre, which is also playing now) as a man struggling between competing needs to act either decently or properly.
If the ending seems more than a little sentimental, it's because Auteuil has kept faith with the story's 70-year-old roots. It's a solid, deeply satisfying film of the kind the French do so well.
Stars: 4 / 5
Cast: Daniel Auteuil, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Kad Merad, Sabine Azema, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Nicolas Duvauchelle
Director: Daniel Auteuil
Running time: 105 mins
Rating: PG In French with English subtitles
Verdict: Old-fashioned quality drama.
- TimeOutBy Peter Calder Email Peter