Have you ever watched a film beloved by many that left you feeling flat?
We had a Letdown while watching the 1938 French film, The Baker’s Wife (La Femme du Boulanger), a comedy-drama about a gifted Baker of Bread who moves to a small village in Provence and loses his wife to a local shepherd.
The baker is naturally upset by this Development, and he refuses to bake any bread until his wife returns. Now, good bread is not to be trifled with, so panicked villagers form a search party to locate her.
See? Doesn’t that sound like an amusing and charming film? Many reviewers thought so, including Frank Nugent of the New York Times, who wrote in his 1940 review, “Certainly no other [country] could have told [this story] so cutely, with such disarming good humor, with such tolerance and wit.”¹
On the surface, you can see why. The Baker’s Wife was lovingly filmed in the village of Le Castellet, and it features intriguing characters who put aside long-standing grievances for the Common Good.
Plus, there is Scandal, and who doesn’t love a good scandal?
Yet, even with all these delicious ingredients, we (yours truly) can’t get excited about this film.
The Baker’s Wife is a long movie – too long by half, in our opinion – and it sinks into moments of Utter Melodrama. We were hoping for a rather brisk comedy.
We’re also uncomfortable with the relationship between the baker (Raimu) and his wife (Ginette Leclerc): He’s old enough to be her father, and not a young father at that. We wonder why she hasn’t had a dalliance before.
Then there’s the Talking. People in this film Talk and Talk. They discuss theology, relationships, and, of course, bread. However, debate is no substitute for plot, nor does it build much tension overall.
Yet, the film does poke fun at its own loquaciousness. In one scene, a villager discovers the whereabouts of Leclerc and her paramour. But! The villager will talk only if he isn’t Interrupted, and he begins his story by saying he awoke at 3:00 that morning to go fishing, blah blah. His meandering discourse nearly drives the baker out of his mind; it’s one of the best scenes in the film.
As it turns out, the dialogue is the Point. In her essay, “Bread, Love, and a Trophy Wife”, film scholar Ginette Vincendeau analyzes the language of The Baker’s Wife.
“[Director Marcel Pagnol‘s] stress on accented speech was his ‘brand’, the key marker of his version of regional identity,” she writes. “In an era when the real Provençal dialect was being swept away by standard French, Pagnol’s dialogue regionalized literate French with local elocution and quaintly comic expressions”.²
She also notes the characters’ “southern-accented voices resonate throughout the village, providing as much spectacle as the main story”³. When two of the characters (the village priest and the schoolteacher) argue theology, they speak in standard French.
Alas, this is an important element lost on those of us not fluent in French, standard or otherwise.
Finally, The Baker’s Wife has not aged well. In a script that places such importance on Language, we see big ideas expressed by the men, while the women fight over scraps of gossip and disapproval.
Director Pagnol toned down the violence in Giono’s novel, says Vincendeau, and moved “the story into his own universe…lightening its tone considerably and tailoring it for his familiar troupe [of actors].”4
If you’re a student of the French language, we hope you’ll find opportunity to watch The Baker’s Wife. But be warned: Whether or not you like this film, it will propel you to your local bakery.
¹New York Times. (Retrieved August 18, 2019.) The French are Telling the Scandalously Funny Story of ‘The Baker’s Wife’ at the World Theatre, by Frank S. Nugent.
²Bread, Love, and a Trophy Wife by Ginette Vincendeau included in Criterion Blu-ray release.
This post is part of VIVE LA FRANCE! BLOGATHON, hosted by Lady Eve’s Reel Life & Silver Screen Modes.
The Baker’s Wife: starring Raimu, Ginette Leclerc, Charpin. Written & directed by Marcel Pagnol. Les Films Marcel Pagnol, 1938, B&W, 133 mins.