Cousin Jules is one of the best films you’ve never seen. Filmed over a five year period and exhibited to acclaim at festivals in 1972, Cousin Jules never found commercial distribution.
For one thing, the film’s format — cinemascope with stereophonic sound — required projection equipment not available in many movie houses, especially small art theaters to whose audience this film might appeal. Though aware of this problem, filmmaker Dominique Benicheti refused to release his work in another format, insisting that cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s images be seen as he intended.
As a result the film sat unseen for decades until Benicheti, concerned about its deterioration, set about restoring it. On his death in 2011 one of his former students attracted support to complete the task. So tonight we are finally able to screen Cousin Jules, albeit a remastered digital stereoscopic version.
Perhaps as problematic as the film’s format is the demanding style of its depiction of the daily life of an elderly rural blacksmith (Benicheti’s actual cousin) and his wife. As reviewer Lee Atwell noted,
Benicheti’s debut inherits virtually none of the requirements of a feature-length documentary film: there is no narrative, characterization, dramatic evolution, no acting to speak of, and the camera rarely moves from a fixed position with long sustained takes. There are scarcely a dozen lines of dialogue uttered… and absolutely no commentary or musical score.
Such an aesthetic is not unprecedented. Georges Rouquier’s 1946 Farrebique, for example, documented a French farm family over the course of a year. Dismissed by a critic (“For one and-a-half hours I saw cows defecate, peasants eat, rain fall, mud stick to dogs”), the film was defended by scholar Andre Bazin, who noted that
Although Farrebique has no story and no star… the audience was deeply attuned to the pleasure of simply recognizing things…[Rouquier] has understood that verisimilitude has slowly taken the place of truth, that reality has slowly dissolved into realism. So he painfully undertook to rediscover reality, to return it to the light of day…
Benicheti himself acknowledged that “Maybe [Cousin Jules] is a difficult film to approach. But it is not marginal. You just have to ask the spectators to be quiet and to listen as if they were at a concert.”
I encourage you to enter the world of this film, the world of Jules and Felicie Guitteaux, without preconceptions and expectations; to attend to the soundscape of their world and the rhythms of their work; to note in the light of the landscape the passage of time. Your patience will be rewarded, for Cousin Jules is less a documentary than a meditation on life.
Like the sequence of 150 photographs without words in John Berger and Jean Mohr’s Another Way of Telling,
There is no single ‘correct’ interpretation of this sequence of images. It attempts to follow an old woman’s reflections on her life… She was thinking, reflecting, remembering, recalling, and doing so in a consecutive manner. She was making sense of herself to herself.
By considering her own life, she reflects, like everyone who grows old, on life in general: on being born, on childhood, on work, love, emigration, work, being a woman, death, the village, work, pleasure, solitude, men and women, work, the mountains.
The photographs in this sequence are not intended to be documentary. That is to say, they do not document the woman’s life — not even her subjective life… All photographs use the language of appearances. We have tried here to speak this language so as not only to illustrate, but also to articulate a lived experience.
I believe this is what Benicheti was trying to accomplish, why he insisted on the primacy of cinemascope images and why he eschewed narrative and music and anything that might impose a single, correct interpretation of his images.
So, please be quiet and listen as if you were at a concert — and enjoy the film.