"The Well-Digger's Daughter": A Minor Scandal in WWI-Era France

In one of The Well-Digger's Daughter's most telling scenes, 18-year-old Patricia (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) spends several minutes on the verge of tears as she defends her honor to a would-be inamorata (Nicolas Duvauchelle) whose lewd advances she has just spurned. An appropriate response, to be sure, but one that plays out in a way that's too stately and reserved to get under either character's skin — a problem the film runs into time and again. In one of many acts of restraint, co-writer/director Daniel Auteuil elides the offending act itself and leaves it to us to imagine the particulars. Here and elsewhere, though, this tale of an unwed mother doesn't give us much reason to assume that what we don't see is much more scandalous than what we do. There's some striking imagery — late-afternoon sunlight peeking through wheat stalks, a quiet stream running through the French countryside, bright interiors — and an airy, evocative score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat, but the characters' dealings with one another (whether romantic, businesslike, or otherwise) are too routine to live up to the formal elements encasing them. Stirrings of dignified outrage via the eponymous well-digger eventually go a long way toward energizing the film, which improves markedly once it shifts its focus from the World War I — era milieu toward how quickly a naive young girl can turn into a fallen woman and the ways in which that fallout affects her father, her family, and apparently most importantly, her name.

 
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