A review requested by Tim Van Autreve, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Director Claude Berri's Manon of the Spring from 1986 is maybe the best kind of sequel. It is greatly deepened in its emotional impact if you've seen Jean de Florette, its predecessor from earlier in 1986 (they were released in France about three months apart), and can fully appreciate the weight of history leaning down on the characters. But it works tremendously well as a standalone narrative (in fact, it does so better than Jean de Florette, which ends on something of a cliffhanger): the backstory is woven into character-building moments so fluidly that it doesn't register that we're having and entirely different film recapped, and having seen the original film, it doesn't register that we're having stuff we already know spit back at us.

This isn't actually all that much of an accident: Manon of the Spring began life as a 1952 film of the same name written and directed by the multi-talented Marcel Pagnol, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, director, and memoirist. As I understand it, the film was carved down so severely from Pagnol's original vision that he decided to turn it into a novel. And since he was already turning it into a novel, he went ahead and turned into a massive two-volume novel, so he could flesh out the film's backstory in its own full narrative. The hefty The Water of the Hills, or L'eau des collines, since everything is sexier in French (though I admit, I prefer the way Manon of the Spring feels in my mouth compared to Manon des sources) was published in 1963, and it was cyclically re-adapted by Berri and Gérard Brach, and so the overall point is, anyway, that if Manon of the Spring feels like it was worked out to stand on its own two feet, while Jean de Florette has an absence of resolution that gives it a kind of tacked-on feel, that's because that is precisely what happened.

I prefer Jean de Florette even so, but it's not worth being a dick about it: both movies are sort of terrific, much better than it seems like they should be on paper. They are relentlessly commercial 1980s French films - so 1980s French, right from the font used in the opening credits - designed for maximum international appeal in the period setting (the late '20s, approximately) and the casting, and shot by Bruno Nuytten (his last work as a cinematographer, before he shifted to directing) to shamelessly make Provence look as beautiful and tourist-friendly in its endlessly golden, sun-kissed fields and hills as any corner of God's earth ever has. The first time I watched the dyad, I approached with an undiluted suspicion verging on hostility, but it's simply too intelligently written and assembled not to overcome that. This is kind of the Gallic version of peak Merchant Ivory: it really seems like the thing that it is can't help but be awful, and instead it's really great.

Back to Manon itself, since that's the theoretical focus here. Some years ago, César Soubeyran (Yves Montand) contrived to block a spring that fed the neighboring property, to force Jean Cadoret, the owner, to sell; his conspiracy ended up getting out of hand and Jean died. Now César and his idiot manchild nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) own the property and use it to grow carnations, with the water from that very same spring. Jean's daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), who witnessed the Soubeyrans' treachery, now lives in the countryside as a goatherd, having come to accept her lot in life, though not forgetting the wrong done to her. This situation explodes because of three events: first, Ugolin watches Manon dancing nude in the hills to dry herself off after bathing, and grows obsessed with her. Later, on a trip to town, she overhears a pair of villagers talking about the wrong done to Jean all those years ago, and realises to her horror that the whole community knew about César's villainy, and did nothing to stop him, since he was such a prominent citizen. She'd be without any recourse, except that quite by accident one day, she discovered the small cave housing the spring that provides the village with all its water. Quicker than you can say "karma sucks, bitches", Manon blocks off the spring, forcing the villagers to come to reckoning with the past sins; they presume the dried-up water must be a sign of divine wrath. While this plays out, César grows increasingly obsessed with the idea that his inept, childless nephew is the last member of the line, and he feeds Ugolin's motivation for starting a family, which turns into an increasingly morbid obsession with Manon that, in turn, intensifies her desire to extract vengeance.

The title positions Manon as the protagonist, but in the actual film it's nothing of the sort: this is much more César's story and therefore a study in how past sins nag at the present, whether those are the sins of Jean de Florette's plot, or the history behind even that history. In the scene that most directly sets up the themes and stakes of his arc, he explains to Ugolin that the Soubeyran fortunes were done in by the family's greed and wretchedness in trying to wall out the rest of the world. "Interbreeding! It's bad for rabbits, and it's bad for people" he grouses to nephew, clearly a victim of that interbreeding.

In this context, Manon is an agent of fate more than a character in her own right, and Berri encourages us to think of that by keeping her dialogue and even her action to a minimum for the early parts of the movie. Casting Béart went a great deal of the way towards making that work: her incongruous beauty is absolutely never convincing as a rural shepherd girl, but it helps to make her seem like a nymph more than a person, something that the way she's filmed reinforces: our first glimpse of her is as a quick burst of motion that we can just make out as a human figure before it darts up a tree. When she's finally brought into the film as a proper character, we learn that she's articulate and inordinately intelligent for that place (a legacy from her intellectual father), and her behavior, coupled with Béart's deeply thoughtful expressions - it's not a very speech-dependent role - allows us to appreciate Manon as a fully-formed individual in her own right, and not just a prop for César's downfall and reckoning; but those early scenes cast a long shadow, and there's always a lingering feeling that she's an embodiment of nature's own revenge, and that the villagers' assumption that the blocked-up spring is a spiritual punishment is exactly right.

It is, in all ways, a film about the relationship of the land and the people who live on it, something accomplished especially well in wide shots that present human beings and their habitations as elements in the landscape, and not even the most important among those elements, sometimes. Even the postcard-appropriate photography contributes to this, focusing our attention on the scenery, which is given so much emphasis and liveliness that it becomes a character, if I may run headlong into a cliché. But clichés wouldn't be clichés if they didn't have some truth to them, and the sheer presence of the beautiful earth with its lush foliage and imposing rocky hills has much to do with how Manon of the Spring works at presenting its characters' place in the world.

In fairness, I don't know that anything that happens here could be honestly described as surprising; the film's themes are not new, and while its execution of them is especially handsome and well-tethered to its characters, it's not in any way challenging. If the film were American, I could describe it as "really good Oscarbait", I think you'd know exactly what I had in mind, and how hard that "really good" had to work. But the point is, that work happened: distinctly bourgeois art film sensibilities and all, Manon is smart and persuasive and very, very lovely to look at. It's not daring, but that's true of much of French cinema in the 1980s, and this film and its sibling are clearly among the strongest highlights in that country and decade.