Rep Diary: Cousin Jules
Dominique Benicheti’s Cousin Jules, recently restored after decades of languishing in obscurity, is a vigorously materialist examination of daily life in rural France. The slow and steady drip of quotidian moments, turned into spectacle by Benicheti’s use of CinemaScope and Surround Sound, are all but etched onto the screen. Blacksmith Jules and his wife Félicie are archetypal country folk, old age creasing their faces, the endlessly repeated rituals of work and domesticity marked by a dignified simplicity. There is little dialogue and only the narrative progression afforded by making beds, mending clothes, and so on, with the emphasis on the actions of these routines, the time they take to perform, and the environment they belong to.
An innovator in cinema exhibition and an engineer, Benicheti (1943-2011) once made a film about the Normandy landing designed to be exhibited on a site-specific 360-degree screen, and a 3D musical about wine production. In Cousin Jules, he creates a vibrant and minutely detailed soundscape that is at times orchestral in its use of ambient noise and the precisely textured clatter of Jules’s metalworking. Shots are often held for a beat or two after an action has completed or a subject has left the frame, the syncopated clangs of an anvil or crunching of clogs on gravel replaced once more by quiet and stillness, but never by silence: insects hum, the wind whispers through the trees, animals cluck and huff in the distance. It is also the rare documentary that, although observational almost in the mode of a scientist in the field, unfolds in fluidly choreographed tracking shots that function as rhymes to or intensifications of the actions on screen. As Félicie cranks a bucket down into a well, her arms moving steadily up and down in a circular motion, Benicheti’s camera tracks in a 180-degree curve around her into a profile shot, an arc describing an arc.
The first part of the film appears to occur over a single morning and afternoon: Jules hammering away in his workshop, deep in concentration, Félicie peeling potatoes in the yard, one of her fingers visibly missing. Later they drink black coffee in the workshop, Félicie constantly stirring her cup, Jules smoking a cigarette. Right then, with the two of them sitting together, Jules lifts his head to look directly into the camera, and there’s a freeze frame—but the sound track continues. Félicie died midway through the five-year period in which the film was shot, and this is the last we see of her. The second part of the film covers the winter, with Jules now a widower, but before that there is a brief and mournful interlude of landscape shots, cows grazing, the sun setting behind barren trees, a gravedigger shoveling dirt under towering headstones.
The camera gives panoramic consideration to Jules’s single-room house, workshop, and the surrounding farmland. Benicheti seems to be continually reorganizing and reappraising these spaces, covering them from as many varied, interlocking perspectives as possible, the proliferation of set-ups applying a cartographic scrutiny to Jules’s existence. The soundtrack and compositions operate in a mutually stimulating back and forth, tightening focus on an action or scene—a sound-image system whereby the meaning of each shot is redoubled moment to moment. The ruffling of a newspaper, for example, re-sensitizes our understanding of the room’s quiet, or the thought of the feel of it in Jules’s hands.
Benicheti’s strict sense of causality offers another instance of his materialist rigor. A close-up of a stove fire is promptly followed by a shot of smoke billowing from the chimney, and the preparation of Jules’s meals is chronicled so meticulously that one can imagine a Cousin Jules cooking show. All objects, be they hot iron or corn, are observed with minute attention to their physicality, an investigation of each thing as that thing—we can distinguish the sound of carrots being peeled from that of shallots being cut. Benicheti presents each object as a fresh encounter with the material certainties of Jules’s life, in its essence.
The overwhelming sensation here is that of the world spinning in its constant, inexorable activity, and singing to itself—man with his habits surrounded by sights and sounds listening to and revealing one another, in conversation, as when Jules sharpens his razor against a wet stone, or a flock of birds are scattered by two off-screen gunshots. In one especially vivid scene, a man identified in the credits as “the peasant” rides a cart, followed by a woman (“his wife”) walking behind. At first the cart moves laterally across the frame, the horse’s hooves pounding the dirt road louder and louder. As the cart approaches close enough for its rickety jostling from side to side to become noticeable, Benicheti cuts to a shot of it heading directly for the camera, its rumbling along growing thunderous as it passes by, almost shaking the viewer in her seat.
The film closes with Jules eating alone, the night enveloping his cottage, dogs barking somewhere far off. With a cut to the next morning, we return to the workshop in broad daylight, dogs still barking on the soundtrack, camera fixed on the empty room, the muted anvil, the absence of work, all of it waiting to be awoken with purpose and noise. This attentive parsing of mundane documentary reality, implicitly subjective in its expertly tuned sensorial vibrancy, suggests the work of Francis Ponge, an essayist, poet and metaphysician who found his muse in contemplating the everyday. As Ponge once wrote: “The object is always more important, more interesting, more capable (full of rights): it has no duty whatsoever toward me, it is I who am obliged to it.”