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  • Oedipus in ProvenceJean De Florette and Manon of the Spring
  • Robert J. Rabel (bio)

To take no action implied, fundamentally, choosing a definite mode of action.

Alberto Moravia, The Lie

The novels Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs, its sequel, were written by Marcel Pagnol and published in France in the 1960s (Pagnol 1962 and 1988).1 Both were made into films in the late 1980s by Claude Berri and had successful runs in both Europe and America. Early reviewers of the films noted connections with Greek myth and literature.2 Subsequent scholars (Reinhardt 1997 and Arey-Binet 2000) added substance to their intuitions, showing that the films were based partly on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus. In this essay, I demonstrate the complexity of the influence exerted on the films by Oedipus Tyrannus. Sophocles' play helps to determine the tragic trajectory of the films in two ways and thus makes its influence doubly felt. First, the filmmakers, by highlighting the connections inherent in the novels with Sophocles' play, construct an Oedipus-like, tragic story of self-discovery for delivery to the films' external audience of viewers, who are invited to map out what they see and hear as a kind of Greek tragedy in modern dress. Second, the characters living within the world of the films serve as an internal audience to whom the analogy between their own experience and the plot of Sophocles' play is explained and becomes apparent. The characters are thus compelled to see the troubles afflicting their town as arising from the presence within their midst of some unknown guilty party or parties, who must be sought out and punished. Next I suggest, using the theory of the scapegoat as developed by René Girard, that the population of the town is restored to health and prosperity by the selection of a scapegoat, who is made to bear the weight of sins committed by the entire community. Finally, after explaining how Sophocles' play adds an important dimension to our understanding of the films, I work in reverse, as it were, and suggest that the films, when understood in the light of [End Page 67] Girard's theory, allow us to reconsider aspects of Sophocles' play in a particularly satisfying manner. With the exception of a single important reference made to Pagnol's novels, which the filmmakers followed selectively but very closely, I focus my attention on the films, where the Greek tragic dimensions of the story are more readily apparent than in the longer and more diffuse novels, which are taken up with a fuller portrayal of life in a small Provinçal town.


Jean de Florette offers little hint of the Greek tragic dimensions it will assume when it opens itself up to the larger structure that comprises Manon of the Spring as well. Jean, a young hunchback, comes to the French village of Les Bastides Blanches with wife and child in tow in order to take up residence in a farm he has inherited at the death of his mother Florette, who early in life left her native village to marry a blacksmith in a neighboring community. Hunchbacks being considered bad luck, Jean and his family are shunned by the inhabitants of the village, except for César Soubeyran, the village's richest man, and his idiot nephew Ugolin (or Galinette), both of whom pay a certain sinister attention to the young hunchback. César is also called Papet, or 'Grandfather.' This designation would seem to have been given him in tribute to his age and exalted status, since he appears to be without grandchildren; however, 'Grandfather' will become a designation ironically applicable in the second film when he discovers the existence of relatives theretofore unknown to him. César and Ugolin covet the farm in question as an ideal place for growing carnations, an especially lucrative crop. The unmarried César hopes to secure possession of this land, find a spouse for his nephew, and thus insure the future existence and prosperity of the Soubeyran family. So the two block up the spring that makes the land desirable, and watch as the hunchback destroys his health and eventually loses his life...


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pp. 67-80
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