As Peter Mayle says, "France is the truffle in our egg box."
Peter Mayle's "A Year In Provence" was an unexpected success as a book in 1989, and the BBC filmed a version of it for the 1993 mini-series, which I never saw. But now it is also available as a two-disk DVD set, billed as an "A&E" network movie. This review is of that DVD set. I use the term "a version" of the book, because the two are quite different. An anal-retentive person who expects a film like this to be very similar to the book will have much difficulty watching it. However, for most of us who can enjoy a film on its own merits, without comparing it to the book too closely, it is a marvelous film, now one of my favorites.
The entire "film", to use that term rather loosely, consists of four consecutive 90-minute films, two on each DVD, and best watched over 4 consecutive evenings. While the book is organized by months, the film is broken into the four seasons, Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Where the book begins with their new year in Provence, the film begins with Peter's and Annie's final days at work, and old friends wishing them well in their new careers right before they actually move to France.
However the biggest departures are in style and in the characters. The book, written from a diary that Peter kept, is more like a survey of interesting places, characters, events, and customs. It rarely goes into much depth, instead covers his and Annie's experiences very broadly. In contrast, the film treats fewer subjects but explores most of them in more depth. Where the book only mentions the Parisian French, in the film we meet "Evelyn", the frantic woman who speaks an almost unintelligible form of English, who has an eye for Peter, and who almost goes mad trying to shut up the neighbor's cock that crows so loudly in the morning, waking her and her house guests.
In the book, the grape harvest and tour of the community winery is mentioned almost in passing. In the film, a funny story portrays how Peter thought his wine was really wine made from "his" grapes and, only after a multi-stop search finds out that it is simply his share of ordinary wine from the wine co-op. In the book Uncle Edward eagerly takes Peter into his wine cave, gives him an exhaustive tasting, sells him much more wine than he set out to buy. In the film, Uncle Edward "has no wine to sell" and simply dismisses Peter, but this is done as part of a larger episode.
There are numerous other such departures, and not much is available about the making of this film, so I have no idea whether the book or the film is more accurate, where there are different versions of the same story. While that may bother some, it doesn't bother me at all. Both versions are thoroughly entertaining.
Most noticeable are that virtually all characters in the film have names different from those in the book. The plumber Menucucci from the book becomes Colombani in the film. The strange neighbor Massott who kills foxes becomes Riviere. And in a similar manner other key characters are given different names. Perhaps this was done for legal reasons, where a diary, even when published, may contain real names, but a film like this may be considered a work of fiction and real names cannot be used. But that is just speculation on my part.
There are three main reasons I like this film so much. First, I am from the French-speaking part of Louisiana and can easily see in the various characters people I grew up around. Second, I spent two weeks in Provence during September 1998, with friends in a 200-year-old house not too different from the one the Mayles lived in. The roads, the people, towns like Ile-Sur-La-Sorgue, the aquaduct near Fontaine de Vaucluse, all included in this film and more brings back fond memories. And third, I really like films based on real events. I found that knowing at least rudimentary French helps greatly, even a viewer knowing no French can enjoy it, because key points in dialog are always repeated in English by a character.
John Thaw plays Peter Mayle and is very believable, although I don't believe Peter in real life is quite as frumpy as Thaw was here. Of note, John Thaw died earlier this year, 2002. But most remarkable are the total cast and what a great job they do playing the various French characters, and the various English visitors. Who could forget Alfred Molina's "Tony", the uninvited guest from hell, another portrayal different from the book?
The DVD picture and sound are not great, by today's standards, but they are still clearly better than a VHS tape. Anyone who has a fondness for, or just a curiosity about, life in Southern France should enjoy this film, "A Year In Provence." A wonderful, wonderful film.
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