Now in his 60s, the decorated French actor Daniel Auteuil has recently embarked on a comfortable transition into the director's chair. That his first efforts have been mostly ordinary might seem surprising for a performer who has worked with filmmakers as exceptional as Michael Haneke (Caché), Patrice Chéreau (Queen Margot), and André Téchiné (Thieves, My Favorite Season), but it makes perfect sense, considering Auteuil's background: having become a star in the mid-'80s with Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, it stands to reason that he would begin the next phase of his career by returning to the works of Marcel Pagnol.
Auteuil's second film, Marius, finds him working in the port-city environs of Pagnol's Marseilles trilogy. (The second entry, Fanny, will be released here later this month. Auteuil will shoot the third film, César, soon.) Marius offers a standard-issue melodrama plot -- Marius (Raphaël Personnaz) is torn between loyalty to his father, César (Auteuil); love for his childhood friend, Fanny (Victoire Bélézy); and a romantic longing to leave home and live the life of a seaman -- in order to grapple with class struggle and familial bonds.
Auteuil buries himself in the values of the period, prioritizing a sense of honor and labor (numerous scenes have Marius and César stacking chairs, mixing drinks, and cleaning glasses). Though there's a certain pleasure in the artificial-looking sets and the committed ensemble -- Auteuil, in particular, can land a killer, platitude-laden speech seemingly on demand -- Auteuil doesn't distance himself enough from the era to allow room for critique. As a result, the old-fashioned attitudes on display are accepted with open arms rather than reckoned with.