Although Yves Robert is not fluent in English, much of the audience seemed to understand him anyway when he visited the Seattle International Film Festival over the weekend.
"Maybe it was because I was making faces, or it was the way I spoke," he said through a translator. Whatever the reason, the 71-year-old director's latest and finest film proved that language is no barrier when Robert is making movies - particularly when they're as universal in their appeal as this one.
The festival audience gave his two-part adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's childhood memoirs the Golden Space Needle award for best picture. Part One, "My Father's Glory," opens for a regular run Friday at the Egyptian Theatre. Part Two, "My Mother's Castle," will follow in four weeks at the same location.
"It was always intended as a two-part film," said Robert. "One movie was in the masculine mode, while the second was feminine. In the first, the young Marcel discovers that his father is not perfect, that he's capable of error. The first movie is about stones and sun, and darkness as well.
"The second is about women and water. Like `The Magic Flute,' it's the story of an obstacle course, and the key that opens all the doors. It's also about a boy's love for his mother as a woman. If you read the books, you sense that she was the great love of Pagnol's life."
Best-known as the creator of a series of fluffy French comedies ("The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe," "Pardon Mon Affaire"), Robert makes a bid for greatness with this double bill. "Father"/"Mother" is a film of great charm and warmth, but it also has its somber side, and Robert doesn't gloss over it.
Like Claude Berri, who hit a career peak with his 1987 adaptations of Pagnol's "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring," Robert is clearly inspired by terrific material. It's also material that has probably been read more widely read than any of Pagnol's other writings.
"There are only 30 to 40,000 copies of `Jean'/`Manon' in print, but over 5 million copies of the memoirs have been published," said Robert. "While `Jean'/`Manon' is invented - a classical tragedy - this is a real story, a chronicle with real people involved."
Pagnol's scripts, plays and novels have enriched French and international cinema since the late 1920s. Robert has been trying to get this particular work on film since 1963. At the time, Hollywood had just remade Pagnol's "Fanny," Peter Sellers had done a version of the much-filmed "Topaze," and Robert had gotten to know Pagnol after directing a French stage version of "Topaze."
"I was so fascinated that I would spend five-six hours a day with him," he said. "He didn't just talk about entertainment. His interests were much broader than that. He was quite amused by the attention I paid him. They had to pry me away from him."
Robert wanted to make a film of the memoirs, but the author was planning to do it himself. Pagnol attempted to cast his own wife in the role of his mother in "My Mother's Castle," but he never made the film. A couple of years before his death in 1974, he was so tired that he knew he wouldn't do it, and he told Robert that he would be happy if he were to take over the project.
"The rights situation became very complicated after he died," said Robert. "Marcel's brother wasn't really an obstacle to getting it made, but it wasn't easy for him to see an actress playing his mother on-screen." Negotiations dragged on for years. Robert made other films, but he was always ready to drop everything to do the memoirs.
After the success of the Berri movies, the Pagnol heirs finally approved of Robert's proposal. The results seem to have pleased everyone, including the French public - which made the two films runaway box-office hits last fall - and the surviving members of Pagnol's family. After the first screening, Pagnol's son kissed Robert and told him, "You're my uncle now."
While the roles of Pagnol's parents went to a couple of well-known French actors - Philippe Caubere ("Moliere") and Nathalie Roussel ("Les Violons du Bal") - the children were played by non-actors recruited from the area of Provence where Pagnol grew up. There is little information about them in the press kit, and that's how Robert wants it.
"I want these children to go on being children," he said. "I don't believe in child actors. It's the profession of adults who choose it. Children cannot make a profession out of acting."