Made three years after Angèle, Harvest (AKA Regain) is one of Marcel Pagnol’s best films (at least of those available in the U.S.). It has the neat effect of being both humble and larger than life. It taps into primeval, Jungian emotions about the nobility of bread, soil, labor and community. When the Russians tried this, it felt like propaganda, but from Pagnol it feels like poetry.
Tinker, Trapper, Smith, and Crone
Though not literally a sequel, Harvest has a lot in common with Angèle. Orane Demazis plays another young woman in trouble. Fernandel returns, this time as a traveling tinker, and once again the story is based on the work of Jean Giono.
Demazis plays Arsule, the mistreated girlfriend of Gédémus (Fernandel). He makes her haul the cart and prepare the meals, and he expects her to be grateful, too. All this is handled with a light touch, which probably did not seem as creepy 70 years ago. Today, it just looks like an abusive relationship, even if the abuser is played by the loveable Fernandel.
Meanwhile, up in the hills, a village is dying. Aubignane shrinks from a population of three to a population of just one. The first resident, the old smith, has retired to the city with his children (his daughter-in-law wishes he would hurry up and die, and is not shy about saying so). The second resident is an old widow; she thinks it would take a family to raise this village. She simply disappears one day, leaving the third resident, the big lummox Panturle (Gabriel Gabrio), to hunt and trap alone.
A Woman’s Touch
The two stories come together when the second resident (the old woman), acting like a witch of the hills, scares the tinker off course and into the lonely village. There, Arsule finds it easy to leave the tinker for the trapper.
Panturle starts to have some hope that maybe the village isn’t completely doomed. With a woman’s touch, his house becomes softer and more civilized. He knows he’s a lummox, but he’s willing to work within his limitations to make a better life for his new-found “wife.” A neighbor gives him the gift of bread — a big, rustic loaf heavy enough to carry under your arm, and he wonders if maybe he could raise wheat himself.
Use It Wisely, My Son
Panturle goes to visit his old friend the smith. City life has rotted him away to almost nothing, but he has kept his best plow, the last one he ever made, as a keepsake. As he hands it over to Panturle, the scene plays like a master bequeathing his best sword to a young adventurer. The reverence and awe of the scene might seem cheesy if it weren’t so darn effective.
Armed with his new weapon and emboldened by the love of a woman, Panturle sets out to “make wheat” — a poetic turn of phrase that fits perfectly in this film’s deep reverence for the land.
Reap What You Sow
The ending of Harvest is a breathtaking piece of film. Man and wife have triumphed. They had a hearty crop, and new neighbors will soon be joining them up at Aubignane.
Arsule and Panturle now cross each other on adjacent furrows as they cast their seeds for the next harvest. As they approach each other in the center of the row, the camera pushes in, keeping each on the edge of the frame as the camera gets closer. The music — never a demanding emotional presence in Pagnol’s films — swells with majesty, and at as the camera reaches the closeup, Arsule tells Panturle about their own impending “harvest.”
In Marcel Pagnol, biographer C.E.J. Caldicott explains that the process of filming may have had something to do with the movie’s sincerity. A replica village was built by stonemasons just for the movie. Pagnol kept musicians on the outdoor set. The whole crew moved into the hills of Pagnol’s childhood and enjoyed a relaxed summer making the film. “Pagnol fostered a cheerful, relaxed atmosphere where the cook-out and games of bowls assumed almost as much importance as the film sequences....”
Photo from Il était une fois... Marcel Pagnol, by Raymond Castans, Julliard, 1978