Taking five years to shoot and forty years to get across the Atlantic, Dominique Benicheti’s “Cousin Jules” is a stunning living portrait of the director’s country cousin Jules and his wife Felicie. Having originally premiered in 1972, spending some time on the festival circuit (picking up a few awards along the way, including the grand prize at Locarno), the film was unable to pick up distribution initially and only reached American shores last year at the 2012 New York Film Festival. Nearly lost to the annals of cinema, the film had been mostly regarded as a footnote in Benicheti’s career and as but a precursor to his more prominent work with 3D technology. But now, with the film screening currently at New York’s Film Forum and being distributed by the Cinema Guild, a larger audience is able to appreciate this real masterpiece and have their breath taken away by its beautiful restoration (thanks to Arane Gulliver Laboratories).
Shot in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, “Cousin Jules” has a lush cinematic quality not common in documentaries (even less so in the 1960s/1970s, with New Waves springing up all around the world, utilizing low budgets and cinema verite style). With cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn (“Day For Night,” “Small Change“) in tow, the film radiates like an oil painting, a classic French pastoral brought to life, albeit with more visibly aged subjects and in not such green surroundings. With its wood stoves and the daily manual labor of its subjects, this documentary could have easily been mistaken for a “day in the life of” narrative film set in an entirely different, much earlier era. Seeming to have eluded the Trente Glorieuses, the couple lead an isolated, self-sustaining existence markedly lacking in material goods and as such, subvert the modern image of an over-commercialized, postwar France (both purported and criticized by the French New Wave).
From a current day perspective, in which we shrug boiling a kettle in favor of hopping over to Starbucks or Argo Tea, it’s incredible to watch the time and effort it takes Felicie to make coffee. From getting cranking the water bucket up the well to grinding the beans, she puts most twenty-somethings to shame. For his part, Jules labors away in his metal workshop and also on the farm. At one point, he grazes his reddish, sausage-like fingers in his forge’s flames and he doesn’t blink, let alone flinch, focusing on the work at hand. Utilizing elegant pans around the farm and well-framed close-ups (his years-scorched hands, her haggard ones—including a half forefinger—preparing meals; their granite-like, stoic faces pausing in profile; their black cat gnawing at a piece of meat; and more), Benicheti showcases the poetical mundanity of rural life and all of its contradictions: slow-paced but busy, unexciting but eventful, etc.
As for the sound, a near-lyrical rhythm emerges from the couple’s daily routine (reminiscent of Alberto Cavalcanti’s work for John Grierson’s GPO Unit—e.g. “Coalface,” “Night Mail”) from Jules’s hammering to Felicie’s peeling potatoes with the only pause being their afternoon coffee, and even then, Felicie drinks her coffee an evenly paced spoonful at a time. Similarly, Jules maintains this beat while eating lunch, slicing his bread in an almost mechanical fashion. Both clearly worn, the couple’s physical activity speaks to decades of routine and instinctive muscle memory. It’s this rhythm that transcends the film from a standard documentary to art and makes it all the more important to see in this current restoration and in a theater. Both are necessary to fully appreciate not only the couple but their story, which features a development illustrated so poignantly that it will stay with you long after the end credits.
Now before you pack up the whole family to see “Cousin Jules” this mid-holiday weekend, here’s some fair warning: with scarce dialogue, the film is not for the faint of heart. That being said, it is a must-see for any cinephile, especially ones who didn’t just have to Google the Cavalcanti reference. After years of being a long-lost gem, “Cousin Jules” has finally been found and is receiving its due as an innovative, meditative case study of rural life.[A-]