(and before you criticize my math abilities, remember what César said "it all depends on the size of the thirds!")
In one of Asterix' first adventures published in the early 60's, an innkeeper from Massilia (Marseilles) was named Cesar Labeldecadix and was an unmistakable homage to Raimu's namesake icon and three of the customers were well-drawn nods to his bridge, boules and life pals. That's how impacting the 'Marseilles' trilogy was, a cinematic mistral that reached the two coasts of America from Broadway to Hollywood. Today, it doesn't even take a passion for movies to be aware of names like César, Marius or Fanny, landmarks of French culture channeling the Smell of the Mediterranean waterfront and the taste of Pastis.
But there's more than colorful chanting accents and evocative countryside in the popularity of these characters. After watching both "Marius" and "Fanny", I believe the key of their appeal is three-dimensional characterization in the sense that every personality can be defined on three levels: how it perceives itself, how the others see it and how WE look at it, and these perceptions are not frozen in time but change over the course of the trilogy as the constant flow of human contradictions unfold on both a comedic or tragic level. The people of Marcel Pagnol grow on us and while we don't always approve, we understand, or at least, forgive. Because that's another strength of the trilogy, all the characters are flawed
but never unlikable.
So we left Fanny as the new Mrs. Honoré Panisse, the old man brought both wealth and name to a baby of then-uncertain future, Marius' son. And when the real father discovered the secret, the old man himself told him to stay away from Fanny and not ruin the fragile equilibrium they barely reached. Five years separate "Fanny" and "César", the only opus not to be based on play. Marcel Pagnol had a long mental block until a 90-year old woman begged for a conclusion, the poor woman didn't want to die "without knowing", inspiration blossomed in the mind of Pagnol. And what better starting point than the coming death and necessary confession of one of the key players of a noble scheme.
"César" begins twenty years later after "Fanny" with poor embedded Panisse preparing for death. Again, Pagnol knows how to infuse a bittersweet taste to the toughest realities, whether in Panisse' lucidity, in the interaction between a doctor and a priest, or César wondering about the hazardous nature of religion. Panisse has no time for philosophy, he only wishes to die with his secret, as the father of his son Césariot, relieved from the burden of a revelation. So he dies, and while the funeral is an opportunity for a nice comedic interlude, it's only during their next bridge game that the sight of an empty chair breaks César's heart, and this time, it's not a figure of speech. As Mr. Brun states (one of the film's best quote): "an empty chair is sadder than a grave".
This moment is perhaps the emotional peak before the second act focuses almost entirely on Césariot. I knew the film would have to deal with the revelation (and Fanny tells him the truth right away) but from the title, I expected César to have a more preeminent role. I guess Césariot (André Fouché) didn't have time to grow on me since he literally grew up between two movies. And because he was raised by an overbearing father and an overcompensating mother (who loved him as Marius' son), he was obviously a spoiled child whose education turned him into an outcast. Even during a heartfelt conversation with César, I was less feeling a generational than a cultural clash. To put it simply, I didn't like the kid.
I know there are attenuating circumstances to his lack of appeal, but I blame his character for being responsible for the movie's drop of pace, which is ironic since this is the first film of the trilogy directed by Monsieur Marcel Pagnol himself. But since it wasn't a play first, Pagnol took it as an opportunity for more outdoors sequences, yet the trilogy has always been about verbal delights so the gruff aura of Raimu is severely missing in the second part. Ultimately, Césariot is only a catalysis agent allowing Marius to come back in the picture, and set our minds and hearts to the epic conclusion the trilogy needed. And the last ten minutes were the perfect finale.
Through Marius and Fanny, we have characters that are again touchingly ambiguous and whose flaws and shameful secrets reveal deeper connections with our own psyche, they're like us after all, and that's why we love them. Fanny admits having waited, even expected Panisse to die earlier so she might get back to Marius. And good old Marius doesn't even read between the lines, or doesn't want to, although he had clearly regretted his previous actions. Marius needed time to think a little bit and was about to go if it wasn't for César's providential interference, by jamming the car's engine, thus providing the perfect kick-off to a romance that had a false start twenty years before.
And it's only fair, given the film's title that the one who ties things together is wise and far-sighted César, the soul of a deep and eloquent human comedy. I wouldn't call the last film the best, but it does exactly what a last film should do, it is conclusive and in a very satisfactory way. As for César, well, you're probably familiar with the French equivalent of the Oscars, yes, the name César was an homage to the sculptor of the same name who designed the iconic statuette, but I refuse to believe in a coincidence, if there ever was a name to define the ultimate achievement on the field of acting, César it had to be.