Jean de Florette: French Rabbit Stew

Year Released: 1987
Directed by: Claude Berri
Starring: Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Elisabeth Depardieu, Ernestine Mazurowna
(PG, 122 min.)

"O! beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." William Shakespeare

Don't pass over this flawless French classic featuring the great Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu. We’re in Provence, where delicious irony flows as freely as red wine, men’s hearts are as wizened and cracked as the dry earth, and dreams intoxicating as the scent of wild rosemary.

You know those old Westerns about range wars and water rights. Well, this is the French version, so we’re not talking sheep versus cattle here, but carnations versus rabbits. Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil from recently reviewed Cache) has just returned from war with dreams of cashing in on carnations he plans to grow on his uncle’s farm. The bachelor uncle, Cesar Soubeyran, (Yves Montand), more a schemer than a dreamer, sees money in the venture, but only if there is a steady supply of water for the thirsty plants. Perhaps their crusty old neighbor, whose land at one time had a spring, will sell. 

The cantankerous landowner vehemently refuses to sell, but when he dies, Cesar and Ugolin hope to buy the land cheap from his heirs. Unfortunately for them, the heir, Jean de Florette (Claude Deoardieu) is a hunchback tax collector in love with the romantic beauty of the countryside as only a city boy can be. He arrives with his lovely wife (Depardieu’s real life spouse, Elisabeth Depardieu), blonde daughter Manon( Ernestine Mazurowna), and a cartload overflowing with fine mahogany and grand ambitions.

Jean de Florette is the epitome if not a parody of romantic idealism. “I am here to cultivate the authentic,” he declares. His toast to the beauty of the blue skies, the scent of wild rosemary, and unexcelled splendor of the landscape rolls off his tongue like French poetry. An awkward Ugolin can only manage, “To your health.” 

Jean’s dream is to raise rabbits, but not in cages, he insists. “I want to see my rabbits run and play,” he says, cavorting about the garden in his best bunny imitation.

But this capricious dreams are based on scientific principles -- he consults his farming manuals and rattles off rainfall statistics like an accountant, worshipping numbers and paper transactions as only a city tax collector could. When he brings his pair of breeders home, and takes them out of their cages, he is more like a vintner uncorking his finest wine. And sealed in a small case, wrapped like treasured jewels are the secret ingredients – four black Asian squash seeds, so rare and costly that he can only afford these few. But Jean insists, his eyes glazing over with a fanatic’s zeal, “…this plant grows as fast as a snake popping his head out of hole.”

All of this is of great amusement to Ugolin and his uncle. What sniggering joy there is when Cesar describes Jean’s unorthodox planting methods! He tosses his seeds out unevenly and Cesar cackles that they’ll grow in tuffs like hairs on a mangy dog. He doesn’t say much, though, when Jean sends them a basket of his harvest, large and ripe and bountiful. For the cynical old Frenchman, there is a folk wisdom to counter this beginner’s luck. “Showers in June only bring doom,” Cesar intones lugubriously. Oh, how he looks forward to drought, when Jean de Florette’s vegetables “will crackle like patent leather shoes.” And just to ensure the ruin of neighbor’s venture and “cement” themselves a cheap selling price, Cesar and Ugolin have sealed up the spring with sacks of concrete.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is this depiction of the simple descent from mere opportunism to deliberate evil, particularly the insidious ways greed wraps itself around a heart, like a weed choking off a tender plant. The first approach to the neighboring landowner is above board, but when Cesar and the old curmudgeon trade insults and then blows, the neighbor cracks his head on a rock. “How easily one can die from falling from a tree.” Cesar predicts. Another “accident” might be a mishap with some cement near the source of the spring. Ugolin, more direct than devious, doesn’t even try to find an excuse when he climbs atop the neighboring house to smash the roof tiles as a welcoming gesture to the new residents.

The film is saturated in French provincial ways – the distrust of outsiders, and an unwillingness to intervene that rivals the detachment of jaded New Yorkers. And Cesar plays upon this like an artist, never informing the villagers that Jean de Florette is the son of the beauty who grew up there. Instead he refers to him only as “the new owner” and in ever so casual a way lets it out that he was once a city tax collector. Of course, now all will stay clear of him, and there is no danger of anyone spilling the beans about the spring on the property.

Knowing this, your heart will ache with each excruciating step for Jean and his poor beleaguered donkey as they trek the rocky hills to secure water from a distant supply. But save your bittersweet tears for the sequel, Manon of the Spring.

— Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Ugolin’s obsession with his carnations is about as bad as Jean’s for his rabbits. And not only does Jean de Florette have the spring; he also has the perfect soil -soil so red, and rich that it nearly brings Ugolin to tears. He and Cesar examine a sample they pour into a china bowl. They add water and then taste it. Yes. You heard me right. They taste it.! 

“Perfect,” declares Cesar, as the two about collapse from a serious attack of the green- eyed monster.

Perhaps if they had a nice rabbit stew made from Jean’s prize specimens and enriched with his bountiful crop of vegetables they might feel better. Then again, it might just drive the two the two crazed carnation lovers over the edge. But it certainly beats eating dirt.

French Rabbit Stew

This dish is also known as “Lapin a La Cocotte, ” if you want to impress your friends with the French name.

Rabbit is truly delicious and very lean - yet rich-tasting. This is a delicious preparation with bacon and red wine and tastes best with mashed potatoes or buttery egg noodles. It doesn't take long to prepare, but long slow cooking does make it even better. Yields 2 to 3 servings. 

  • 1 (2 1/2 lb) rabbit, quartered
  • 3 slices bacon, cut in thirds
  • 1 1/2 cups sliced onions 
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons flour 
  • 1 cup beef broth 
  • 1/4 cup red wine 
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme 
  • 2 teaspoons dried parsley 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • salt and pepper 

In a large skillet or medium-sized Dutch oven, cook bacon until done; remove bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve for another use (for a salad, etc).

In the bacon drippings, cook the onion and garlic until transparent. 

Add the rabbit pieces and saute over medium heat until rabbit is golden.

Sprinkle on the flour and continue to brown rabbit for another 5 minutes or so, then add the beef broth, red wine, thyme, parsley and bay leaves.

Cover and simmer over low heat for about an hour, adding more broth if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste (with the bacon drippings, not much salt is needed). Serve with mashed potatoes or buttered egg noodles.

Recipe Source: Recipezaar.com