JEAN DE FLORETTE – Jean-Claude Petit
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Jean de Florette is one of the most critically acclaimed and important French films of the 20th century. Directed by Claude Berri and adapted from the novel by Marcel Pagnol, it stars three of France’s most prominent actors of the era – Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, and Yves Montand. Montand and Auteuil play César and Ugolin, uncle and nephew, impoverished farmers in Provence shortly after the end of World War I. They covet the neighboring farm owned by the Cadoret family, especially its abundant water, provided by a natural spring on the property. When ownership of the Cadoret farm transfers to Jean (Depardieu), a city tax collector and hunchback with a young daughter named Manon, César and Ugolin see an opportunity to seize the farm for themselves, and embark on a series of schemes designed to turn the community against Jean and drive him away. The film was a massive success, and saw audiences connecting with its universal themes of jealousy and greed, while simultaneously being charmed by cinematographer Bruno Nuytten’s gorgeous photography of the French landscape. The film received eight César and ten BAFTA nominations, winning a total of five, and was largely responsible for the tourist boom in Provence during the 1980s and 90s, especially among the British.
The score for Jean de Florette was by Jean-Claude Petit, a French composer who in 1986 was little-known in the film world – he had spent most of his career up to that point providing orchestral arrangements for jazz and pop artists, and had just a handful of cinema credits to his name. Petit would go on to score several well-known films, including The Return of the Musketeers (1989), Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), Mayrig (1991), and Le Hussard Sur le Toit (1995), but Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon des Sources remain his most popular and enduring works.
The score is characterized by expressive, highly classical orchestral passages, filled with beautiful textures and instrumental colors. Petit’s main theme is based largely on the central melody of the aria “Invano Alvaro” from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1862 opera La Forza del Destino, and an adaptation of the melody is heard in its entirety during the opening cue, “Jean de Florette,” albeit with the lead voice transposed to Toots Thielemans’s iconic harmonica. Although that opera has nothing to do with France – it is set in Spain and Italy – it has nevertheless become a defining musical depiction of Provence and its pastoral landscape. Allusions to the piece occur throughout the score, in cues such as “Le Corbillard,” “Le Plus Dûr Est Fait/Les Artistes,” “Baptistine,” “La Secheresse,” and “L’Enterrement,” where the theme is performed entirely as an oboe solo.
The other unique musical instrument Petit adds to his score is the psaltery, a medieval version of a zither or cimbalom, and which in this instance Petit appears to be using as a marker for water, the life-giving potential source of wealth and comfort at the heart of the story’s central conflict between Jean, César, and Ugolin. Its tinkling timbre is heard in cues like “Les Oeillets/L’Eau,” and especially in “Le Miel,” during which Maurice Guis’s dexterous performance takes center stage, creating an atmosphere that almost sounds like medieval church music.
The rest of the score, when not showcasing these two instruments or the Force of Destiny theme, provides a lush, pastoral depiction of French provincial life, through a series of orchestral lines that, for me, have similar connotations to those which Ralph Vaughan-Williams brought to his famous musical expressions of the English countryside. Some of the woodwind combinations – sonorous oboes and trilling flutes, backed by swooning strings – are almost prototypically redolent of nature, the sun and the sky, the fields and the farms, with cues like the dance-like “Arrivée/Les Grains” and “Les Romarins,” providing especially strong examples of this.
On some occasions Petit does allow a touch of darkness and uncertainty to cloud his music, such as in “Les Pieds dans l’Eau/Florette,” the surprisingly dramatic “Les Lapins l’Australie” (a cue about rabbits!), the rapturous “L’Orage,” and the heart-rending “L’Accident,” but for the most part the score remains very much rooted in the warm earthy sounds of the setting. The conclusive cue, “Générique Fin,” presents a final, sweeping orchestral statement of the Force of Destiny theme, this time with the psaltery playing with equal importance to the harmonica, bringing the score to a powerful close.
The score for Jean de Florette has been released several times on CD and LP over the years, but my personal favorite version is the 2001 Silva Screen release, which presents the most important parts of Petit’s score with digitally remastered sound. Despite the quality and popularity of the score at the time, Jean-Claude Petit is not terribly well known amongst film music fans thirty years removed from his heyday, and if you are of a mind to begin exploring his work, this score – and its sequel, Manon des Sources – would be my recommendation as being the best place to start. Although the famous main theme is not Petit’s own work, the rest of the score is filled with enough excellent, heavily classical orchestral writing, and beautiful instrumental textures, to make it a worthwhile and satisfying purchase.
Buy the Jean de Florette soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Jean de Florette (2:49)
- Les Oeillets/L’Eau (2:43)
- Le Corbillard (1:06)
- Les Pieds dans l’Eau/Florette (2:48)
- Les Lapins l’Australie (1:13)
- Arrivée/Les Grains (3:57)
- Le Plus Dûr Est Fait/Les Artistes (2:44)
- L’Orage (3:21)
- Baptistine/Les Romarins (3:37)
- La Secheresse/L’Accident (3:27)
- L’Enterrement (1:29)
- Le Miel (1:07)
- Générique Fin (3:33)
Running Time: 33 minutes 54 seconds
Silva Screen FILMCD-328 (1986/2001)
Music composed and conducted by Jean-Claude Petit. Orchestrations by Jean-Claude Petit. Featured musical soloists Toots Thielemans and Maurice Guis. Recorded and mixed by Roland Guillotel. Score produced by Jean-Claude Petit.