“The Well-Digger’s Daughter” ends up being as much about daddy as his little girl. She’s Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), one of six girls being raised by her widowed father Pascal (Daniel Auteuil). She’s spent most of her childhood in the care of a cultured woman in far-away Paris, and after her mother’s death, she returns to her sun-kissed rural hometown in Provence, sporting a polished accent and some city refinement.
She’s no snob, though. She loves her dirt-streaked pop and sweet sisters. And, at age 18, she feels a whole new kind of love. It’s for Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle), the dashing pilot who literally sweeps her off her feet and into his arms to ferry her across a rushing stream when she’s carrying lunch to Pascal. Problem is, Jacques is the son of the village’s wealthy, stuck-up shopkeepers, M. and Mme. Mazel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Sabine Azéma). Jacques is the smiling, smug beacon of desire for young women many miles around — and a source of worry for his overprotective mama.
Patricia is also being courted by her dad’s assistant Félipe (Kad Merad), himself old enough to be her father. Though a humble rustic, he’s put aside a nest egg and even bought himself that grand novelty, his own car. And he turns out to be the movie’s most endearing, morally upright character.
“Daughter” follows old-fashioned dramatic tropes: an unwanted pregnancy, the advent of World War I, a sudden death, the prejudices of small-town life. What’s odd is the way Patricia, who’s the focus of the film’s first half, falls to the sidelines and becomes a sort of observer of her own fate in its second. Instead, Pascal becomes the lead character as he tries to do right by his daughter while conforming to the social expectations of the day, or at least in the ways a proud, uneducated man interprets them.
This is a homecoming for Auteuil, who’s making his directing debut on material written by Marcel Pagnol, the author whose work was the basis of two movies that brought Auteuil to international attention: “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the Spring.” (Time flies, huh?) Here he wisely keeps just as much of the action outdoors, in the beautiful waving fields of flowers and olive groves.
His performance as Pascal, though, is sometimes hard to pin down. Pascal is a proud man, but also a bit of a humorous bumpkin. As an actor, Auteuil sometimes seems too smart and intense to fit completely comfortably into the role. But he’s always interesting to watch.
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter” is a trifle of a movie, offering a fairy-tale ending that’s a little too easy a follow-up to some of the drama that precedes it. But it offers the sort of Provençal eye candy that can turn a movie theater into quick, affordable transportation to a lovely somewhere (and some-when) else.
“The Well-Digger’s Daughter.” With Daniel Auteuil, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Directed by Auteuil. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 107 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.