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MOVIE REVIEW : A Sentimental Journey Through ‘Castle’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In “My Mother’s Castle” (opening today at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar), Yves Robert’s second film from French playwright and cineaste Marcel Pagnol’s autobiographical quartet, the mountains of Provence look like a photo album paradise. Glistening with sunlight under crystalline skies, they’re the mountains of childhood, comfortable as an old coverlet.

It’s an old man’s view of early youth, and a double-filtered one. Pagnol was in his 60s when he wrote “Castle,” which mostly covers a rhapsodic year spent by himself, his close relations and friends in Marseilles and the neighboring Provence countryside.

Director Yves Robert is 70. And perhaps inevitably--because the aging often cherish childhood’s memories above all--it’s sweet, glamorized, idealized. Like the previous Pagnol-Robert memory-film, “My Father’s Glory,” “Castle” is beautifully shot and designed, supremely tasteful, often well-acted--and sometimes a bit lifeless.

Robert catches the book’s reverie, its wistful tenderness. But he misses much of Pagnol’s earthy wisdom, irony and spontaneity.

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There’s another problem. Robert’s film of “My Father’s Glory” gobbled up the text of that first book and about a third of “My Mother’s Castle” as well--leaving almost nothing substantial for this movie but one long climactic episode: the Pagnol family’s adventurous trespassing of wealthy estates along the canal paths with an illicit key. So another episode has been added: a perverse love story with a spoiled little girl (Julie Timmerman, radiant and tart). This off-key interpolation suggests what’s flawed in Robert’s approach: preciousness, calculation.

Robert himself is known for urbane, tense sex comedies, like “Pardon Mon Affaire,” and his staging is precise, crisp. He’s also well aware that he’s directing a French classic, and it shows in his treatment--which is carefully boisterous, tastefully joyous. All too often, Robert’s actors seem trapped inside his immaculately balanced, exquisitely lit compositions. They rarely threaten to burst the frames, the way Pagnol’s own movie troupe--Raimu, Fresnay, Charpin and Fernandel--often did.

Toward the end, Jean Carmet as the surly, sodden old estate guard performs with the unguarded zest of the best of Pagnol’s ‘30s actors. But the movie doesn’t often match this brio.

Seeing “My Mother’s Castle” (rated PG) and “My Father’s Glory” without knowing Pagnol’s books or movies, one might write off Pagnol as a nice, but sentimental writer, lucky to get such a lush production. But knowing Pagnol and what the movies could have had, shouldn’t diminish the smaller pleasures they do summon up.

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‘My Mother’s Castle’

Philippe Caubere Joseph Pagnol

Nathalie Roussel Augustine Pagnol

Didier Pain Oncle Jules

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Therese Liotard Tante Rose

An Orion Classics release. Director Yves Robert. Producer Alain Poire. Screenplay Lucette Andrei. Cinematographer Robert Alazraki. Editor Pierre Gillette. Costumes Agnes Negre. Music Vladimir Cosma. Production design Jacques Dugied. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.


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