By Karina Longworth
“La Vie Moderne,” playing here on the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is the third documentary portrait of a group of rural French dairy farmers that Raymond Depardon has made this decade, and as such, comparisons between Depardon’s overall project and Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series are not unapt. But where Apted’s seven films across forty years have come to define a changing Britain through the personal evolutions of a single generation, Depardon paints a portrait of a region and a way of life that seems on the verge of almost certain collapse due to nothing more than the natural passage of time and collision of generations. Taking on the triple role of interviewer, cameraman and narrator, the filmmaker’s affection for and rapport with his subjects is obvious, his tenacious patience a welcome contrast to the aggression employed by so many self-referential documentarians.
Depardon’s style of inquiry certainly requires more of an investment from his audience than fans of contemporary crowd-pleaser non-fiction might be used to, but it’s an investment that pays off. Where coarser filmmakers approach their subjects with laser-guided precision, essentially turning each question rhetorical, Depardon simply sets up a camera and has a conversation. In long, often unbroken takes, he slowly, gently chips away at his subject’s defenses until, apparently without realizing, they begin to unpack their own statements and reveal their true meanings.
The film is structured as a year-long roadtrip. Through footage shot on a camera mounted to Depardon’s dashboard, the filmmaker takes several minutes in between each location to envelop us into the terrain ahead of his destination, as Depardon goes from farm to farm and family to family, catching up (and catching us up) on what went on whilst he was away. It’s a documentary in which no event is actually directly documented; each subject simply sits down in front of Depardon’s camera and explains their version of events past and present, and a few months or years later, Depardon comes back to repeat the process and track how things have changed. More than anything else, this is a movie about the passage of time.
The over all mood is somber, resigned. A once-dominant culture has become a sub-culture, and from there it’s petering out completely as patriarchy and matriarchs die. The younger farming families send their kids to boarding school and encourage the children who stay home to avoid the family business. Without family connections, those who wish to become farmers find it impossible. This is partially due to lack of demand, but there’s also the question of authenticity and legitimacy.The young mother from Lyon who wants to build a goat cheese business seems like a carpetbagger compared to the lifers caught on Depardon’s camera, who have never lived elsewhere and never contemplated an alternate career.
There’s not a superfluous moment in the film, but most of the “Moderne’”s core ideas come across most beautifully in the narrative thread about the Privat family, who have appeared in each of Depardon’s farmer films. Brothers Marcel and Raymond are in their 80s, and though both still tend to their goat and sheep daily. When the film begins, nephew Alain has just married a woman he met via personal ad, and has moved his new wife and stepdaughter into a separate house on the Privat farm. Alain’s uncles never married, and they bristle at the introduction of an independently-minded woman an her young daughter into this “family of bachelors.” Within a long, funny and seemingly unedited single-camera interview, Depardon gently breaks down the Privats’ polite defenses. “I don’t like being pushed around,” Marcel finally complains. The threat posed by Alain’s wife to Marcel and Raymond’s solitude and autonomy is a neat metaphor for the anxieties that run spoken and unspoken throughout the entire film, about the encroachment of technology on tradition and the passage of time.