The last time I set foot in a movie theater was in February of 2020 and with Omicron currently raging, it will likely be longer. I just subscribed to Mubi, and it is one of the best things I have ever done. In the week and half since I subscribed, I have seen quite a few interesting films and documentaries. Just last week I reviewed Red Moon Tide. Today, I wanted to share my thoughts on the 1973 documentary Cousin Jules, which was directed by Dominique Benicheti.
Dominique Benicheti (1943-2011) was a French film director and producer known for documentaries as well as innovative work on 3D film and animation. Starting in 1968 and for five years intermittently, he filmed his second cousin, Jules Guiteaux, who was a blacksmith, and his wife Félicie (who died midway through the shoot), on a small farm in the French Burgundy countryside. According to Moving Image Archive News, when it was released at the Locarno Film Festival in 1973, it was awarded a Special Jury Prize and hailed as a milestone in documentary filmmaking. It was later screened at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Moscow International Film Festival. And that was it. It wasn’t seen again until a restored version was screened in 2013 at the New York Film Festival at the Film Forum. According to the New York Times, Cousin Jules, unlike most documentary films of the time, was filmed in a larger format (CinemaScope with stereo sound) that was not suitable for most art film houses of the time.
The film opens to the sounds of a rooster. We then see Jules wearing worn out wooden clogs and walking from his house to the large shed that contains his anvil, grindstone, and furnace. We see Jules at work, heating the iron bars that he bends and shapes on the anvil. Benicheti beautifully captures all these details in real time. Worn farming tools and kitchen wares are seen throughout the film, which captures life at the turn of the 20th century—it is a record of pre-industrial domestic and rural artistries. An ode to the handmade. The New York Times review, with a hint of snark, notes that the film “may also resonate among 21st-century devotees of the agrarian and the artisanal.”
Some may find the film a little frustrating in that there is no apparent narrative or dramatic progression (there isn’t even any music). It is just a slice of life. However, it is beautifully photographed, and the sound is nothing short of remarkable. Yes, I had questions about Jules and Félicie, and I wanted to know more about their lives (both were born in 1891 and lived through two world wars) but I was remarkably satisfied with it. It was a welcome break from this modern, mechanical world.