This review contains spoilers for the Marseilles trilogy. If the element of surprise is important to you, watch the movies before reading any further. You may want to read about the first film in the trilogy, Marius, before reading this review.
Released one year later, Fanny opens where Marius left off. The ship Malaysia is sailing out of Marseilles harbor, with Marius aboard, for a five-year scientific mission. Meanwhile, Fanny (Orane Demazis) is left home in tears — and, it turns out, in shame. She will soon learn that she is pregnant.
A Patchwork Family
In the last movie, Fanny toyed with the affections of Mr. Panisse, the sailmaker (played by Charpin). She flirted with him in order to make Marius jealous. When her trick worked, she discarded Panisse, oblivious to his feelings and his very existence as a human being.
Panisse is not deterred by Fanny’s feelings for Marius. Now that Marius is gone, Panisse takes the opportunity to renew his proposal. Fanny’s mother urges her to accept, after all he is well-off financially and Fanny can pass the baby off as his. Fanny is willing to marry him because he is kind and decent, but she will not deceive him about the baby.
In the earlier film, Panisse was a minor character, more a plot device than a real person. Fanny’s emotional cruelty made him look like a fool. Even his drinking buddies thought he was the softest of the group, the butt of most of their jokes.
In this film Panisse is fleshed out. We learn he was married once before; now he’s a widower. He had dreams of being a father to a little brood, but either he or his wife was infertile. Fate had taken away his most important dream. So naturally, when Fanny confesses she’s pregnant, he is thrilled. He will finally have a son to raise and call his own.
Fanny’s family grows not only by a husband and a child, but by a father and godfather as well. Cesar (played by Raimu) misses his son Marius terribly, but he won’t show emotion in front of his customers. Only when he is with Fanny can he open up and show his excitement at the news from Marius’ ship. Their shared love and their new family connections (Fanny’s baby will be Cesar’s first grandchild) bring them together as father and daughter.
As in the previous film, most of the conflict doesn’t take modern form. Modern movies have a strong central conflict or antagonist. But Fanny and the other films in the trilogy fill their screen time with character development and long scenes of dialogue about the smaller conflicts that do arise. In that sense, you might say the films are like a soap opera, only better.
The film’s most dramatic scene is also the most dramatic scene in the trilogy. It begins when Marius (Pierre Fresnay) comes back home on leave. He knew Fanny got married to Panisse, but he didn’t know he had a son until he arrived in Marseilles. Having seen Panisse leaving on the train, he knows that Fanny is alone, and he goes to see his son.
Marius arrives confused and angry, and all he can think to do is try to take possession of his wife and child. Fanny knows better than to let Marius do that, but she is still so in love with him that she might just give in.
Luckily, Cesar learns Marius is in town and correctly assumes he’s gone to see Fanny. Cesar arrives in time to keep the situation rooted in reality, and to keep the two from doing anything they might later regret. Marius becomes dangerously angry, but Cesar seems willing to put his own life on the line to protect Fanny’s new family from this mad intruder, his own son.
Hitting Their Stride
The filmmaking matured a lot since the first film. Perhaps it’s because there was a new director, Marc Allégret. Something that struck me was that scenes of dialogue were flowing and intense. During several conversations, cutting from one point of view to another is so exact that there appear to have been two cameras rolling at the same time.
If true, it might have allowed the actors to give a longer, more involved performance. It certainly seems that way. The actors’ conversations, though long, are very engrossing. Whether the tone is light and playful, like the old men sitting and drinking or serious and sober, like the family discussing the future of the baby, the actors really hit their stride.
In addition to the great acting and dialogue, there is a satisfying undertone to the whole picture, one of decency. People do the right thing for the right reasons. For example, Panisse wants to marry Fanny, not to take advantage of her desperation, but because he truly loves her and wants to help raise her child. Cesar goes to Fanny’s room when he hears his son is in town. He sees how much the two lovers still want each other, but he still convinces Marius to walk away and Fanny to let him go. When Marius’ temper flares, Cesar seems willing to let his own son attack him, rather than let any harm come to Fanny and Panisse’s family.
When characters politely tell and ignore white lies (which happens often enough that it might be considered a theme of these films), the motives are not hypocritical; they are merely polite, decent, and good for social lubrication.
Maybe the most amazing thing about this second film is that the situation presents so much room for shame and hurt, yet everyone acts nobly to make the best of the bad situation. It’s refreshing, not that everyone makes sacrifices for the communal good, but that everyone does something, nobody is lazy, everyone is active in making life decent and right.
And while that sort of positive depiction may not make for instant gratification down at the multiplex, it does seem more real, more human, and more optimistic than movies in general.
They really don’t make them like this anymore, but they should.
Next week, Cesar.