Released in 1931, Marius is the first film in a trilogy about a little community in Marseilles (Fanny and Cesar followed in 1932 and 1936, respectively). The first two movies are based on a play by Marcel Pagnol, who later went on to direct some of his own films, including the third film in the trilogy.
The trilogy is a masterpiece of simple human drama. In contrast to most films, especially modern American cinema, there is neither a strong antagonist nor a strong central conflict. What it has instead is a lot of time devoted to character development, and a lot more dialogue about the smaller conflicts that do arise. You might call the trilogy a soap opera if you implied nothing negative.
If the movies are a little slow, they are never boring. The dialogue is focused and lively, and the characters spring to life (particularly Cesar) and implant themselves in your memories.
Marius (Pierre Fresnay) is the son of a bartender. Their bar is right on the waterfront in Marseilles, and it caters as much to sailors as to the locals. Ever since a pack of sailors came in from Brazil with their exotic goods and spicy smells, Marius has longed to set out on the sea. Although he’s never tried to leave Marseille before, he’s now 23 and he’s talking to the dockworkers, trying to get a job as a sailor.
Marius is a typical rebellious youth, full of energy that he doesn’t know how to direct. He gets into fights easily. He looks at girls but doesn’t have a steady girlfriend. He’s not entirely sure why he wants to go to sea, and his father’s opposition only makes his desire stronger.
Marius’ father Cesar (played by the great French actor Raimu), is loving, if overbearing. A widower, he has raised his son alone for the last twenty years. He always assumed Marius would help him run the bar until it was time for him to retire. Naturally, Marius’ wanderlust is a point of contention between father and son.
Fanny (played by Orane Demazis, who continued to work with Pagnol after the trilogy) grew up outside the bar selling cockles. She has always been fond of Marius, even though he seems to consider her only a friend.
Fanny uses her feminine wiles to make Marius take notice. Her tactic? She solicits the attentions of 50-year old Mr. Panisse (played by Charpin), the sailmaker. When Marius sees Fanny with the old man, his jealousy is stoked, much to Fanny’s delight. Seeing her with another man makes him realize that she is an attractive young woman, that she could be more than a friend. Soon Panisse is discarded and the two young lovers are sneaking out at night to see each other.
Life Goes On
Panisse is only one of the regulars at the bar. He’s the least macho, the most sensitive, the softest of the regulars. There is also the young bureaucrat who hopes to make a difference through civil service, and the heavyset former navy man who has settled down in Marseilles. Cesar is a regular too; he drinks at their table as often as he tends the bar.
Of the three films, Marius is the least fleshed-out. Especially at first, the characters seem a little too colorful, a little too caricatured. But as the movie progresses, and as more and more scenes of dialogue play out, the characters begin to take shape. The characters coalesce into real people that you imagine go on living, even after the film stops.
Marius, along with its sequels, is the kind of movie you can watch again every couple years. It’s like checking in on your old friends to see if they’re up to their same old tricks.
Next week, Fanny.