Witty and earnest, this is a remarkable work of ‘30s French cinema that benefits from very human characterisations.
Dir. Alexander Korda
1931 | France | Comedy/Drama/Romance | 127 mins | 1.19:1 | French
Not rated (likely to be PG)
Cast: Raimu, Pierre Fresnay, Orane Demazis, Fernand Charpin
Plot: Marius is faced with a choice whether to fulfill his passion by sailing the seas or stay and marry the woman he loves.
Source: Marcel Pagnol Communication
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
I always like discovering pre-WWII French cinema, particularly the period that has been characterised by ‘poetic realism’. The early works of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carné come to mind, but in ‘The Marseille Trilogy’ which consists of Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936), we see something a bit different—a sense of staged if earnest romanticism. The word ‘staged’ here is critical: the first two films have been adapted from an acclaimed play by Marcel Pagnol, while the third one continues with Pagnol directing from his own script.
A few minutes into Marius, and one might already find it absorbing. This is a testament to Pagnol’s strong writing, which introduces us to an array of characters whose characterisations are as human as you like, particularly the main ones (incidentally whose names form the individual titles of the trilogy). Marius (Pierre Fresnay) is a young man who secretly longs to sail out to sea so that he could experience the ‘other side of the world’. His father, Cesar (Raimu), owns a small bar which he helps out in. Fanny (Orane Demazis), Marius’ childhood friend, is at an age where she needs to think of marriage.
The film underwent a 4K restoration in 2015.
As the drama unfolds in compelling fashion, one will be hard pressed not to notice two things—that it is a tremendously witty film bursting with humour, and that it is also bursting with life with the busy Marseille port as a backdrop. Directed by Alexander Korda, who was a top-tier producer (of works such as Things to Come (1936), The Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940)) and equally as prolific as a director, Marius sees him bringing his vast production experience to French cinema at a time when sound only just revolutionised cinema.
In a way, Marius could not have been made in the silent age of cinema with all that verbiage. In that context, it becomes even more fascinating that Pagnol’s bantering characters have now lingered on for nearly 90 years, that cinema could draw out qualities of the stage and capture them for posterity. With outstanding performances, especially from Raimu, Marius is a treasure well-restored and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Its compassionate humanity and themes of love and family continue to ring true today.