Cousin Jules

03/03/2014

France / 1972 / French

Directed by Dominique Benicheti

Still from 'Cousin Jules'Something doesn’t seem right; Cousin Jules was made during the reign of the heroic documentary, whose calling card could be Margot Benacerraf’s Araya (1959), a film about salt laborers who live on Venezuela’s uttermost coastline. Buttress that with Jeffrey Jones’ muscular short-subjects about rail travel and cybernetics, and it becomes clear how out-of-the-blue Dominique Benicheti’s masterpiece of observation and immersion really was. Its portrait of French rural life makes no claims at universality, at drama, or any guiding ideas. But the objects speak, the activities sing of a deep and individual narrative. Like the images in Ulrike Ottinger’s Taiga (1992), they exude their own power, carrying the weight of history while affixed to a constant moment.

“Cousin” Jules, as he seems to be known, is an eighty-year-old blacksmith who lives in the countryside, with his wife, Félice. Benicheti’s film doesn’t so much follow, as engage with them for the duration of five years, sifted down to contemplative minutes, and naught but a few words are issued. The film seems to understand, better than any that spring to mind, the irrepeatable singularity of moments in time, all of which nonetheless cling together in a vast fabric. Seeing both requires a focus akin to needle-threading. These people’s lives are composed of a surprising number of tasks – surprising only because they are avoided, omitted, or taken for granted in modern society, but nonetheless mostly still take precedence in the countryside. Jules puts straw in the stove, feeds the chickens, simmers a stew of vegetables and bread. He turns an ancient drill-press of laborious wheels, or pumps the lever of enormous bellows for his modest forge. Félice draws water from the well, and brings it inside to boil for coffee. Life hinges on wheels, pulleys, and time-worn ingenuity.

Still from 'Cousin Jules'Meanwhile peasants gather sticks at the edge of a field, bundling them together and stacking them on a wagon. The landscape changes as drastically as Van Gogh’s haystacks, muted by winter, or burgeoning with lush greenness. While the seasons drift in and out, potential energy defines everything, from the hammer about to drop onto glowing metal, to the wheel about to plunge a bucket into the well. The objects are all positioned and directed for their function. The elderly couple’s bodies look so frail (but belying a stout, ropey strength) that not a movement must go to waste.

Never does this feel like peering across the glaze of a simpler time – a disappeared time it may be – but one quietly bustling with complexities. The days are loaded down with chores, and there seems to be a tool for each one, like the dried corn cob used to strip the kernels off of another, or the water wheel in yard that rotates the grindstone. Anything not requiring a tool is unnecessary, or doesn’t exist. Things are done, by virtue of their profound necessity, in a detailed and methodical way. Jules hangs the mirror on the window pane in order to shave with the most light, and efficiently chips away at his stubble with the straight-edge razor. Decades of expertise latent in his hands, he hammers away in his workshop with deft and subtle movements, turning the glowing metal over and feeling it out til smooth. His and his wife’s gnarled hands work with unexpected dexterity. (Félice’s missing finger gives her quick potato-peeling a feeling of true peril).

The exchanges between people, always non-verbal or with an extreme economy of communication, are made distractedly, so locked into the individual routine are they, and yet so fused together in cooperation. The elderly couple do not mumble more than a few words to one another, and the words are so swallowed or half-formed that, in the first several minutes, they sound just as plausibly Breton as they do French. They both seem poised in the density of their own thoughts, momentarily resting from the strictures of a carefully-sequenced routine. Jules fills his bottle at a wine barrel, shuffles from barn to house, changes from his outdoor clogs to his indoor clogs. The moment has long since vanished into the next.

Sounds are rendered with meticulous clarity, as though fresh off of the whetstone. They also are given time to “breathe”, to appropriate a recording studio term. The blacksmith puts down his hammer and it bounces on the bench press until it is still. A child in the distance cries out repetitively. An offscreen motor rumbles into proximity, Jules watches it vigilantly, and we listen. At times the wild noise and room ambiance resemble that of Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky’s The Turin Horse (2011), so oppressive and multilayered are they.

Still from 'Cousin Jules'While the light on the film is at times Japanese in character – becoming both the forest and the stream – it is most frequently robed in effortless sfumato, a trenchant layer of cobalt dust, or exuding a private, mahogany glow like that of Antonio Reis and Margarida Cordeiro’s Trás-os-Montes (1978). Memories of such films as that are reconstituted by this one, which nonetheless a breath of fresh air all its own. While its existence is surprising, the fact that it wasn’t given proper release isn’t. Evidently the technical limitations of theatres in the 1970s kept it so. But what a beautiful fate, to be relived at an even further remove from the way of life it depicts, the observational actuality having come into its own and subsequently stretched to transparency by droves of lesser filmmakers.

This feels like a placid world, with the only truck for miles being a tiny mobile shop where the old man buys bread and sugar. But in reality, the people we are watching have been adults through both wars. While the land on which they live may not be scarified by trenches or laced with metal, the point is that this isn’t a vacuum or a vortex out of history. There is real pain, of course, dug into the dirt, or beneath the sheets on appearance – and the hard folds of Jules’ face, dutifully facing his half-inhabited world, become an extraordinary depiction of loneliness – but it is well beyond the need for articulation. The daily grind, so to speak, transplants everything to now, memory and longing perpetually overshadowed.

The practice of naturalism being a form of artifice, Cousin Jules sheds a raking light on that normalized illusion, so unaffected are its subjects, and so intuitive is the film’s affinity with them. In both fiction and documentary, rarely do we think about how unnatural is a slow pan (do we ever survey things that smoothly?), or how against reality is a cutaway shot, so expressly designed to adhere to conventions of pace, perception, and audience attention are they. But the way that they function within a film like Benecheti’s is both perfectly-done and self-reflexively artificial. Cinematic affectation feels naturally-occurring, and thus stands out as all the more strange and applied.

Still from 'Cousin Jules'The camera tracks ninety degrees around the old woman as she retrieves the bucket from the well, revealing little more than an extended sense of space. The image freeze-frames on the couple as they sit in their chairs sipping coffee, although they are so stolid that the camera may as well keep rolling on them. It is a final portrait of the two together, as we find that she has passed away at some point during the film’s chronology; Jules spends the rest of the film alone. Little blips of illusion, rather than being an attempt at wryness or flourish, relate to the celluloid as do footnotes to a text, gently widening the bounds of description. They enhance the presence of the camera, while not diminishing that of the subjects and the environment. Things are not so much heightened as sharpened, their combined impact and pervasive mood sinking ever deeper into our eyes and ears until our attention is fully transported, content to do nothing but absorb.

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