Honor and Sacrifice: On Fanny
Note: This is the hundred-and-sixty-seventh in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Letterboxd, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1932 film, FANNY, directed by Marc Allégret.
Released just one year after MARIUS (1931), the first installment in playwright, screenwriter, and future film director Marcel Pagnol’s “Marseille Trilogy,” FANNY picks up just moments from where its predecessor left off. Immediately, the emotions and characters of the beginning of Pagnol’s story are rejuvenated for the sequel, with wide sweeping shots of the French harbor transitioning into the energetic bluster of César (Raimu), the barkeep and father of Marius (Pierre Fresnay). Marius has just left on a ship bound for faraway lands, unknown to his dad, but Marius’ lover Fanny (Orane Demazis) is all too aware that he has made the decision to heed his wanderlust. In these earliest moments, one can find the central themes of FANNY. In the absence of Marius, you may see youthful masculinity’s heedlessness. In César’s care for Fanny, you may see guiding patriarchy (for good and bad). And in Fanny’s distress, leading to her fainting, you may see the status of women 90 years ago (and to some extent, even now), beholden to the actions of men, bereft of the immunity to certain scandals, and called to make certain sacrifices for “honor” and apparent “decency.”
I’ve already written about MARIUS at length, which was my second favorite film of 1931. You can read that piece to get the lowdown of the story, character relationships, and nature of the Marseille Trilogy at its inception. But suffice to say, the meteoric success of MARIUS led Pagnol, the plays and films’ auteur if not their credited director (for the first two installments), to write the follow up FANNY. It too was staged before it was filmed, but Pagnol was essentially able to get his whole tremendous troupe together once again, with the exception of Paul Dullac as the ferryman Escartefigue, recast here with Auguste Mourriès. The character has a slightly diminished role in FANNY, but regardless, the continuity from MARIUS to FANNY doesn’t just lie with the cast. Pagnol and collaborator Marc Allégret, the latter taking over directing duties from Alexander Korda, take what made the first film so special and mature its themes while retaining the southern France charm and humor.
FANNY’s most radical departure from MARIUS is in its mobility. Although it was certainly more fluid, both visually and aurally, than other early talkies, MARIUS was more stagebound than its successor. Allégret, of whom I don’t know much but who was making films as early as the mid-1920s and as late as the 1970s (FANNY is probably his greatest claim to fame), brought an expansive eye to the movie. FANNY moves out from the same few setups (although the continuity between films is also retained with the same interior layouts) with just a few but impressive location shoots. The standout is the title character’s extended walk through Marseille, captured with a wonderful, distant tracking shot from the street, to a church at the top of a mountain, from which we see a beautiful vista of the city and harbor. This blast of freedom, both for Fanny and an audience used to the the bar, sail shop, and fishmonger’s home of the central characters, immediately precedes her prayer in the dimly lit church. Fanny prays for the strength confess to her mother for, after all, she is pregnant with Marius’ baby.
Marius and even Fanny herself did not know that fact before he left. And to make matters more complicated, the middle-aged sailmaker Panisse (Fernand Charpin) has proposed for Fanny’s hand to her mother Honorine (Alida Rouffe) once again. Honorine accepts but just before her daughter reveals her plight. It is in these scenes that we get the first startling examples of the depth of Pagnol’s characters. Panisse is forthright in his intentions and explains to Honorine he knows of Marius and Fanny’s activities (although of course not yet of the pregnancy) but doesn’t want to hear more about it. Honorine begs Panisse not to murder Fanny if she cheats on him, to which he says he cannot swear; after all, that is his right, and besides, his Turkish blood wouldn’t allow any other outcome. Honorine shouts “assassin” in one of the movie’s funniest line deliveries. But in spite of all this, Panisse elaborates, of course he would have no cause to do such a thing; for since he would trust Fanny implicitly, even if he were to see her in the arms of her lover, he simply wouldn’t believe it. It’s a remarkably funny exchange but also one that’s telling for future events in the movie. In spite of how harsh he may sound in writing here, this scene makes clear what sacrifices Panisse is willing to make to be with Fanny.
It’s not some kind of noble pursuit, however, as Panisse himself tells Fanny later. He decides to go forward with the marriage once she tells him of her pregnancy and she worries pity is all that drives him to do so. Panisse explains that no man has ever acted more selfishly, as he has always wanted a son (he never had children with his deceased wife) to the extent that he had “and son” sign letters drafted up for the front of his store 30 years prior. All of these exchanges establish a more profound and central role for Panisse, in spite of his courtship for Fanny in MARIUS as well. Pagnol succeeded in enriching the character of a somewhat pompous, older man seeking a marriage with a much younger woman into a well-meaning, tender, and open-minded sweetheart operating in self-interest, sure, but also taking on tremendous risk in the cover-up of Fanny’s indiscretion.
Of course, that this indiscretion is potentially life-ruining not just for Fanny but also for her own unborn child is an unfortunate circumstance of the time and not a moral judgment cast upon the characters by Pagnol. He paints the people of FANNY in silly lights at times but there is no demeaning of the actions taken by them. Even once Marius shows up ahead of schedule and demands to take his woman and son back, the writer puts enough inflection points in his circumstance to make an audience sympathize for all parties. There is no easy moral out, no satisfactory answer. Marius’ feelings of betrayal from even César, who explains that a father is one who provides the love, not just life, is somewhat understandable. Everyone’s conclusion (that of Panisse, César, and even Fanny, who confesses she will always love Marius), is that the young man must just go away for the benefit of the child, who Panisse clearly loves as his own.
These plot points represent the more tortured tone of FANNY, especially in regards to its title character. Where MARIUS was on the whole more lighthearted until its conclusion, FANNY consistently churns with dramatic tension. But Pagnol’s sequel is not just some darkened tale; many humorous interludes are sprinkled throughout to retain the folksy charm of the Marseillaise. Much of the movie’s success must be attributed to its performers as well, of course. In writing about MARIUS, I explained that Raimu was the MVP of that film. And while it is true that he is still tremendously strong and central to the story of FANNY, the absence of Marius as his foil (until the very end) only makes Charpin’s role as Panisse all the more crucial. He consistently amazes with his tolerance and humanity, just as he does with his comic arguments with Raimu and others.
Ultimately, FANNY evolves the will-they-won’t-they youthful romance of MARIUS into the consequences of youthful rashness with remarkable aplomb. FANNY is a better film than its predecessor but only because the character development and fondness for Pagnol’s Marseillaise was established in MARIUS. At its core, FANNY deals with the requirements for honor and sacrifice in a world that often punishes passionate spontaneity. Fanny refuses to deceive Panisse and marry him without telling of her pregnancy and resists her chance to be with Marius. Panisse understands Fanny’s plight, and rather than prey on the situation, promises a secure life, doing away, without a second thought it seems, with the concern a man might have in adopting a “bastard” as his own. And César, often more restrained and calm here than he was in MARIUS, steps between the two lovers to save them from themselves and to ensure a future for his grandson, even if he will only be known to the child as his godfather. FANNY is full of graceful characterizations and beautifully rendered scenery and is ultimately a film deeply embedded in human joy, heartbreak, selflessness, and heart-aching desires.