Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy (1931-1936) Review

Marius (1931) Director: Alexander Korda

Fanny (1932) Director: Marc Allégret

César (1936) Director: Marcel Pagnol

The Marseille Trilogy


Marcel Pagnol’s masterful 6+ hour epic trilogy collectively called the “Marseilles Trilogy” is one of the great feats of early cinema. It is a simple story arc that takes us deep into the lives of the families and shop-keeps residing on the sun-kissed shores of Marseilles, the port-town in southern France. Marcel Pagnol (pronounced “pahn-yole” in French) was an extraordinary man. He was, at one point, the most celebrated living writer in France. He wrote a series of successful plays, film scripts, novels, translations of Shakespeare and Virgil, and autobiographies. His “Marseilles Trilogy” was initially adapted from his theatre production for the first part, Marius in 1929. Marius was the first of Pagnol’s films. Pagnol’s films are often grouped into the “Poetic Realism” category, though unlike Renoir or Carne, Pagnol’s films are more optimistic, more comedic, and ultimately end in a scene of reconciliation and redemption.

The Marseilles Trilogy is the great French epic of the 1930s. Each of the three films are masterpieces. The films gently weave between moments of rage and tenderness, conflict and resolution until each character accepts the necessity of the circumstance. Each character is tremendously complex, torn between passion and convention, love and intuition, class and inheritance, dreams and reality. The center of this dramatic whirlwind is Fanny, the passionate unrequited lover who is forced to sacrifice her hopes for her security. Class conflict is a theme that is rife throughout the film series. Marius is working class, and is a questionable choice for a husband, while Panisse is unattractive and older but he has money and therefore security. The conflict between the two men brings tension to the first film, and it lingers even after his death, as it is discussed by both Fanny and Marius in the closing scenes of the final chapter where they are deciding whether or not to be together. Whereas the film trilogy could have been a mediocre, melodramatic soap opera, instead each of the three films are beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, and delightfully put together. The Marseilles Trilogy is an absolute triumph of cinema.

Marius Pagnol

The late 1920s was a time of restructuring for French cinema. The advent of talkies brought new challenges, as well as opportunities for the French studios. The two big French studios of the silent era, Pathé and Gaumont, were gradually overtaken by their American and German counterparts. Thus, the first of Pagnol’s films was produced by the French affiliate company of Paramount Pictures. The film was shot on location in Marseilles (Pagnol grew up in Marseilles). Pagnol desperately wanted to direct his films, however Paramount selected the experienced Hungarian émigré Alexander Korda instead. However, it is generally accepted that Pagnol significantly influenced, if not totally controlled, the direction of the films. It was his first foray into a successful filmmaking career.

Marius (film).jpg

In the first part of the trilogy, Marius (pronounced “mah-ree-yoos” in French), we are taken on a journey to the sunny and optimistic shores of coastal Marseilles. It is a small port town in the early 20th century. Everyone knows each other’s business. César is a simple barkeep and he runs his bar (Bar de la Marine) with the help of his able-bodied, 22-year old son, Marius, though we often find César asleep on siesta or drinking wine (an amusing nudge at southern French culture). Marius often works at the bar standing in front of a large row of wine bottles, while he dreams of a life away at sea. In fact, he is obsessed and taken by a kind of “madness” for adventure on the high seas. Meanwhile, a young, attractive, coquette girl named Fanny (pronounced “fah-nee” with emphasis on the latter syllable) hangs around the bar. She is the daughter of a fishing business owner in Marseilles. Marius claims not to love her, though Fanny is secretly in love with him, while at the same time an older, wealthier shipping merchant named Honoré Panisse attempts to court Fanny, but she coyly rejects rejects him. One of the potent themes in the first film is virility and masculinity, as Marius is longing for a life of adventure, rather than his father’s sleepy little port town life, nor his father’s friend who publicly known to be a cuckold, and who refuses to sail his boat out beyond the harbor at Marseilles. However the deeply manly and courageous risks taken by Marius can fall to great depths, as one of the men warns Marius about his dreams of shipping off. Marius gives in to Fanny’s advances and they spend the night together a few times, with some townsfolk noticing the scandal. Both Fanny’s mother and Marius’s father find out. Marius and Fanny decide to get married, but Fanny soon sees how his “madness” for a life at sea has overcome his thoughts. She feels guilty when a space opens on a vessel for Marius, and Fanny realizes their marriage would only breed resentment. As the film progresses, the warm and open scenes of Marseilles turn to dark and shadowy enclosed spaces, while the city is lit by the distant lighthouse like a voice that calls to Marius. The warm atmosphere appears over the departing ship as Fanny distracts Marius’s father while Marius is liberated. He escapes to his ship as the film ends in tragedy for Fanny, but hopeful and perhaps selfish for Marius. The title of the first film refers to the character whose perspective we gain, which in this case


Since Pagnol had an argument with Paramount over the first film, he decided to release the second through his own production company. The second installment, unlike the first, features large, sweeping glimpses of street life, business practices, and boating in coastal Marseilles. The second chapter in the trilogy, Fanny, begins right at the moment where Marius ended. Fanny reveals to César that his son, Marius, has abandoned them for a life on the open seas (a five year journey to Australia). César is understandably distraught. César and Fanny spend their days and weeks waiting for Marius to send a letter. Meanwhile, Fanny grows sick as time goes by, only to discover that she is pregnant with Marius’s child. In one of the best scenes in the film (of which there are many) Fanny exits a doctor’s office and walks in a dreamlike state down the streets of Marseilles and arrives at a church where she begs God to send Marius home to her. Fanny goes home to tell her family and her mother nearly throws her out of the house in shame, meanwhile César grows more ashamed of his son’s abandonment considering the situation. He receives a letter from Marius, but the letter barely mentions Fanny other than hoping her marriage to Panisse goes well. In tears, and with little doors open to her, Fanny contemplates drowning herself. However, Honoré Panisse, the wealthy shipping merchant of Marseilles, again approaches Fanny’s mother asking for Fanny’s hand in marriage. Fanny, reluctant, goes to Panisse and confesses her situation and offering herself as a bride, if he will except her in all her shame. Surprisingly, Panisse accepts her and is excited at the prospect of a son. He is fifty years old and this is his last chance to be a father. He plans to claim Fanny’s child as his own. Even César is eventually persuaded that Fanny’s marriage to Panisse is the best course of action, though it means he will lose his grandson, but Fanny promises to appoint César as her child’s godfather. Fanny and Panisse are married and Fanny gives birth to a son. The weeks and months go by and the baby grows and becomes eight months old when suddenly one night, Marius reappears without warning. First, he visits his father, César, who is happy to see Marius but fails to tell him about Fanny’s marriage or his son. One night, Marius sneaks out of his father’s house to visit Fanny. They have a drink and Fanny lies about her husband, Panisse, being asleep. In the course of their brief time together, Marius puts the pieces of the puzzle together and discovers that he is the father of Fanny’s baby. However, Fanny cannot be part of Marius’s life. It would not be right or honest. César appears and reaffirms Fanny’s decision as the best option for the baby. One of the underlying reasons for Fanny to remain with Panisse is his wealth and security. Panisse also appears and a conflict ensues in which Marius and Fanny both profess their love for one another, but Marius accepts their decisions. He storms off into the night to catch his train to Paris so that he may ship off in the Navy immediately.

Poster for César 1936 showing Fanny and Marius .jpg

César was the only chapter in the trilogy in which he wrote the story specifically for the screen, rather than first for the theatre. César is the cathartic, happy ending to the series. Ironically, between films, Pagnol, himself, had a child out of wedlock. At any rate, the story takes place nearly twenty years later following Fanny. The film opens with an older César visiting a priest. We learn that Panisse is not well. He has had a heart attack and is on his deathbed. His makes his confession to his priest, publicly in front of his friends. Panisse comes to light as an honorable man, respected by his friends, choosing to do the right thing for Fanny and her son, and he is loved and respected by his family for it. Fanny’s son is named Césariot. Throughout the film, we sense that times have changed. The streets of Marseilles are busier, noisier, with the rise of automobiles. It is not the same quiet town that we were witness to in Marius. We are also given Pagnol’s comedy back in César. When Panisse dies, there is a funeral parade in his name, but all the men marching are busily worried about their hats and are concerned with their own mortality. The scene is amusing, not morose. Césariot comes home from his polytechnic school to be a part of his father’s death and funeral, knowing he will go on to join the army soon after. He speaks without the thick French-Italian accent of Marseilles. Shortly after Panisse’s death, Fanny reveals to Césariot his true father in a powerfully dramatic scene. Distraught, Césariot concocts a fraudulent story about visiting a compatriot outside Marseilles when he, in fact, goes to visit his true father (though this ruse is busted when Césariot’s friend suddenly appears in Marseilles two days later). Césariot visits Marius, who is now working as a mechanic and living alone in Toloune. Césariot does not reveal his identity, but the two go fishing together where Césariot learns more about his father’s background. He returns to Marseilles, initially unimpressed with Marius, but after discussing with his mother, Fanny, he learns more about their early romance. One day, Marius visits Marseilles for parts and Césariot reveals himself to Marius. Then he orchestrates a confrontation between himself, his mother, Marius, and César. Marius provides a compelling defense of himself, confirming he is not a scoundrel or a common thief despite popular rumor, and he leaves to return to his home away from Marseilles (since he was banished by César and Fanny years ago). At the end, Césariot goes to join the military and Fanny drives to find Marius at his house on a tree-studded hillside overlooking the ocean. The two embrace, but Marius, now an older and wiser man, does not believe himself worthy of redemption nor of Fanny. They both love each other but Marius does not know the right course of action. Suddenly, Marius father, César, appears and sets them straight. He gives his blessing for them to marry and he hopes for a future together where they may have more children, in his family’s name. Appropriately, the film series ends amidst blossoming trees with César, Fanny, and Marius finding happiness, peace, and redemption.

Image result for marseilles trilogy
Image result for marseilles trilogy

In more recent years the Cinémathèque française brought the trilogy back to the silver screen, and the Criterion Collection has beautifully preserved the series. The film was remade in Hollywood in 1938 as Port of Seven Seas, and it was also remade for Broadway and as a stage play in France (in part and in whole). There have also been television versions, operas, and more recent French film remakes of Marius and Fanny with César to come. When the films were first released in the 1930s, they were immensely popular in France, breaking box office records. They continue to be classics of early French cinema.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s