Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The novel Hortense ou l’eau vive, by Jean Giono and Alain Allioux, was published in 1958. That same year, the film Girl and the River (French title: L’eau vive) was released, directed by François Villiers over several years and with a screenplay by the very same Jean Giono.
The Wrath of the Durance
The novel and film with the same name and author make for an unusual tale. The heroine of both works is in reality the Durance, a river in France that flows down from Montgenèvre to join the Rhône River near Avignon, crossing the Provence region. The Durance was famous for its sudden rises and floods. Projects to tame the river date as far back as the 19th century (1856 to be exact), but technical obstacles prevented any from starting. In 1955, a massive hydropower development project was approved for the entire Durance-Verdon River Basin. The new Electricité de France (EDF) utility, formed in 1946 through nationalization, was charged with the task. At the time of its construction, the Serre-Ponçon dam was the largest in Europe, but it was also a technical feat – an earth dam – that was a source of French pride and a symbol of progress. The major disruptions anticipated in particular for the upper valley would directly impact the local communities, who seem to have been unimpressed by the project. To overcome their opposition, the idea was to make a feature film, in color and CinemaScope, with a well-known cast, a renowned screenwriter, hit music by Guy Béart and authentic shots of the valley’s transformation. EDF financially backed the film and requested that images of the construction site be included throughout the story. Such was the motivation behind the novel Hortense ou l’eau vive and its sister film – works of fiction steeped in reality.
A Film Created Alongside the Construction of the Serre-Ponçon Dam
In 1956, a television report showed the first scenes of the film being shot under the supervision of the “Master of Manosque”, Jean Giono. The voice-over evokes “the poetic Durance, which is losing its magic at the industrial will of man”. One year later, in April 1957, another report shows the project’s progress in the Serre-Ponçon region, which is set to become the home of Europe’s largest earth dam. A rather baffled-looking Jean Giono can be seen observing “his” valley being transformed by massive construction equipment. The writer is clearly torn: “Of course, I’m not for the dam, but there’s a certain respectable truth in it that caught my interest.” Giono was also on-site to scout locations. When the film was released in 1958, Giono, who is also known for his work Second Harvest, wrote the following about the Durance River: “It’s no longer possible to let it do what it wants. We want to destroy the personality it has expressed over thousands of years. No one used to dare challenge its whims; now it will be sent into a factory, blocked, channeled and churned. Its beauty, no longer required, will be replaced by its work. It will be attacked and torn apart by the frightening machines that have emerged from the toughest period of a relentless era.” Through the film and the novel, Giono sought to capture “a sort of history of the event” as it unfolded.
The Dam: An “Insane Idea”
Jean Giono’s novel Hortense ou l’eau vive enabled him to analyze, over time, the reactions of the valley’s residents to such an upheaval of their routines. The story begins in the 1880s, but the majority of the novel takes place at the very time of the valley’s transformation, making it almost a “non-fiction novel”. The first part of the tale explains how Martin Fabre, and later his son Félix, made their fortune. The second part is primarily composed of spirited dialogues. Félix is well traveled and knows the river like the back of his hand: it “was the Lord’s curse, a devouring demon, an eater of good. It had ruined the lives of hundreds of families... Each time it flooded, the Durance devoured hectares of good land, taking fields, vineyards and even houses with it.” However, he has heard about “a company that wanted to transform the entire valley, up to Savines on the Durance and to Ubaye on the Ubaye. It was an insane idea that involved building a dam on the Durance at a place called Serre-Ponçon, where two foothills closed in on the valley. A lake would be formed from the water retained from the Durance and Ubaye Rivers. The project called for the towns of Savines and Ubaye to be swallowed by water. The aim, apparently, was to generate electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor....” Félix cares little about electricity, but he understands that if two towns are to be flooded, displacing around 1,200 people, compensation will be in order. This leads him to buy up land and homes of little value in the area. When “the Company”, which goes unnamed but implicitly refers to EDF, settles with the owners, he receives an enormous sum of money. Félix has a young daughter, Hortense, who more or less symbolizes the freedom and strength of the Durance River. He bequeaths her a large fortune, which he has carefully hidden somewhere he is persuaded that she alone will be able to find. He does this because the girl’s uncles and brothers, who will become her legal guardians after his death, are all equally greedy. They use all possible means to find out where the hoard of cash is hidden, going as far as confining Hortense within a deserted town that is at risk of being flooded by the rising waters of the barrier lake.
A Heavy Blow...
As the novel progresses, the valley’s transformation is told through the eyes of Hortense and her family. The young girl has just one worthy relative – Simon, a shepherd – but it is difficult to herd sheep “with all the cars on the roads and all the construction sites along the Durance, with their trucks and crawler excavators as big as tanks”. The towns threatened by the waters are set to disappear: “the factory along with its large chimney and machines, the train station along with its clock and bell, the church along with its bell tower, the school along with its benches, the town hall along with its statue of Marianne, the cemetery along with its crosses” will all be gone. But for the oldest residents, the Durance dam project will have no more success than in the past: “Engineers! What do they know about the Durance? They aren’t even from around here. When I was just a child, people were already talking about the Serre-Ponçon dam and the big lake behind it. […] They wanted to hold onto water from the spring and then release it in the summer. Except that nobody was ever able to build the dam. […] Today, everything is like that: people come up with things without ever thinking about the consequences. The Durance won’t be tamed today any more than yesterday. Every reasonable person knows that.” Justifying the dam with the need for progress does nothing to convince old Joséphine: “I couldn’t care less about their progress! What have I gained from their progress these last 75 years of my life? I’ve always eaten the same food. I’ve always worn the same clothes. I’ve always gone to bed and woke up at the same time. […] Oh, there’s no lack of big talkers around here at the moment. Last month, one of them spoke of sacrifice and the greatness of France. I’ve already sacrificed one of my sons to France, at Verdun. Big speeches are always meant to ram some kind of garbage down your throat.” It can also be added that in these valleys with small – and shrinking – populations, the sudden arrival of more than 2,000 people to work on the hydropower complex and the long line of huge trucks was no small matter. Moreover, an earth dam was a very daring undertaking. As a result, one of the uncles says, “I’m afraid of everything. The wheels, the men wearing hardhats, the trucks coming out of the mountain, the tunnels and their dark depths, the completely bare mountains they keep scraping away at. Everything shakes. It’s so noisy. It’s war.” Some even liken the situation to putting the cart before the horse. “France! A country that sacrifices its water for electricity, a country that sacrifices the asparagus and melon it exports for the vacuum cleaners and televisions it imports, is done for!”
... But Some Hope for the Region
However, while some characters, generally the older ones, have fearful or hostile reactions, others echo the positive changes and opportunities to be had (no doubt like Jean Giono himself, who had mixed feelings about the Durance’s transformation). The project aimed both to provide electricity, tame the river and irrigate parched lands further south. Hortense, who herself is not against modernity since she buys a television, has a cousin who works on a bulldozer and another cousin who works at the construction site cafeteria: “It’s better than going to Mexico like we used to do back in the day,” they say. For others, the barrier lake could become a tourist attraction: “Tourists love lakes. We could start a business like in Nice or Cannes. We’d have red umbrellas, yellow umbrellas, bathing huts, paddle boats, ping pong, boules, cases of beer and even water skis. And the buses of skiers will stop here instead of driving through to the Alps.” Beyond the Serre-Ponçon region, the Durance development project would extend across 250 kilometers, with no less than 33 hydropower plants and 117 municipalities involved. The dry regions located south of the valley would be able to take advantage of the waters from the Durance and Verdon Rivers, while the La Crau region would be transformed. Accordingly, the novel ends on a positive note – the river no longer induces fear. Simon the shepherd says to young Hortense, who wants to buy a sheepfold in La Crau: “I’ve been told that the grass we get up there will be brought down here to our homes by the Durance. It will put silt on these barren lands. The trees will grow. The orchards will fall into line. This land will become a hospitable place. You will come to love it as much as your father loved the old land now underwater.”
- -Read Hortense ou l’eau vive (new edition, France-Empire, 1995).
- -Watch François Villiers’ film Girl and the River, starring Charles Blavette and Pascale Audret.
- -Read issue No. 1, April/May 1956 of EDF’s in-house journal, Contacts électriques, on the Serre-Ponçon development project, including a speech on how inevitable progress is tarnished by the sad event of putting the two towns underwater and technical information on the construction methods.
- -Watch various video reports about the Durance development project on the website of the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA) (films made for the ORTF).
- -Visit the « repères méditerranéens » website, which features film clips and excellent commentary, including that of Jean-Marie Guillon in “Jean Giono à Serre-Ponçon”
- -Read Virginie Bodon’s work, La modernité au village (particularly the section on the submerging of the towns of Savines and Ubaye) (Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2003).