Life is understood by Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy to comprise negotiation between oneself and all external forces in an essential struggle to assert a preferred version of identity. Fancying yourself an artist or a sailor doesn’t mean much if no one else agrees with you, giving you the jobs or opportunities to allow these visions to take root, just as loving someone doesn’t mean as much if you can’t compel them to love you back. Nesting underneath the umbrella of life writ large are microcosmic dimensions of negotiation, one of the most formative being family, and the act of familial negotiation is invested by the Marseille Trilogy with physical tactility. It has weight.

At their broadest, the films in the seriesMarius, Fanny, and César—concern the efforts of a young man, Marius (Pierre Fresnay), to marry a neighboring woman, Fanny (Orane Demazis), who has loved him since early childhood. Due to class, patriarchy, matriarchy, sexual and religious hypocrisy, financial desperation, and the intangible ebb and flow of desire, pride, and heartbreak, this quest takes twenty years and has many segues and detours, which are dramatized by the trilogy over a course of six-and-a-half hours. Pagnol’s roots as a novelist and a playwright show in his intricate understanding of networks, of crosscurrents that whisk the characters away from seemingly nearby finish lines. He has an astonishing grasp of destiny, not as a sentimentally celestial branch of predetermination, but as a series of prisms fashioned by the push and pull between emotion and human-contrived social structures.

MARIUS
Marius

Three directors are credited in the Marseille Trilogy: Alexander Korda for Marius, Marc Allégret for Fanny, and Pagnol himself for César, but the latter is the auteur throughout, providing the series a sense of texture that’s so hyperreal it’s surreal. This Marseille is vast in its smallness, in the sense one has of being able to navigate the city merely by watching these films. Much of the pleasure of Marius, for instance, springs from acquainting oneself with the lay of the land, as when starting a densely-imagined novel.

We meet Marius, who works for his father, César (Raimu), in the latter’s bar, which is nearly underneath the fish market where Fanny works for her mother, Honorine (Alida Rouffe). Across the street is the shop owned by a wealthy sailmaker, Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who kicks the plot into motion when he announces his intentions to marry Fanny after the recent death of his wife. Panisse is old enough to be Fanny’s father, and while he enjoys the full advantage of a patriarchal society, he still understands that he has to sell this premise a little, at least for appearances. His efforts to do so initiate a series of interrelated duets between the characters that resemble jazz numbers in their free-associative virtuosity, and court trials in their allegiance to protocol as a means of establishing righteousness. As in a trial, there are many reversals and counter-reversals, with manipulators finessing the tenor of others’ emotions like seasoned conductors.

FANNY
Fanny

The differences between young and old initially look familiar, with the parents and influential something-or-others enslaved to custom while their children are feisty and passionate, but Pagnol doesn’t favor such predictable simplicity. Much of the handwringing and heartbreak that bleeds across the films could be avoided if Marius could decide whether he wants to settle down with Fanny or travel the world as a sailor in the navy—an obsession beckoning him from the port that's vividly just across the street from César’s bar. Our sympathies often align with the older-school characters, who’ve been scarred by the rules of the game and are instructing their children on how best to benefit from them. Even Panisse, who could be a villain in a routine drama, is self-aware, kind, and more grateful for what Fanny could give him than Marius appears to be. That’s a difference between the old and the young: The young assume that opportunity drops at their feet plentifully like fruit from a tree, while the old know better. Pagnol never gives one an easy, orienting way out with these characters, who all evince tenderness as well as a toothy propensity for exploitation and cruelty.

Within this grand drama of romantic ownership is a feast of overlapping contrasts between cultures, accents (much is made of the difference between those from Marseilles and Lyon, for instance), sights, and body language. At the trilogy’s heart are intense celebrations of quotidian ritual that reveal the pleasures of life underneath the turmoil. César, the most poignant character in the trilogy, can be brought to a point of religious exaltation when instructing Marius on how to properly mix a drink, and his vigorously sharp and polished gestures when concocting a Mandarin-Lemon for Honorine say as much about the character’s art and passion as his many finely-sculpted orations. In César, there’s a daring inquisition of Christianity’s place in this culture, when a doctor comically accuses a priest of killing his patients with rituals that lead them to expect death.

CESAR
César

The Marseille Trilogy is a now almost-secret masterpiece awaiting our rediscovery. Various neorealist movements seem unimaginable without Pagnol’s mixture of the artificial and the found, without his interest in turning lower- and middle-class problems into the stuff of operatic tragedy and redemption. Rossellini might’ve learned from Pagnol’s interest in the juxtaposition between faces, gestures, and landscape (particularly the landscape of one’s own realm, like César’s bar), and there’s something in this trilogy’s obsession with everyday religiosity that paves the way for the cinema of Elia Kazan and Martin Scorsese, among many others. Pagnol offers a freeing, definitive marriage of cinema and theater, revealing words to be the very manna of our reality.
Janus Films’ new 4K restoration of the Marseille Trilogy—Marius, Fanny, and César—opens January 4, 2016, at Film Forum in New York, and January 27, 2016, at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles.