‘Cousin Jules’: a couple quietly living in a state of nostalgia
A review of the documentary “Cousin Jules,” Dominique Benicheti’s slow and quiet study of French rural life.
The New York Times
‘Cousin Jules,’ a documentary written and directed by Dominique Benicheti. 91 minutes. In French, with English subtitles. Not rated. Grand Illusion.
The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.
Modern documentary filmmaking has been often defined by speed and portability. That was true in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when lightweight machinery helped give birth to the cinéma-vérité and direct-cinema movements, and it is certainly true today, when smartphones and tiny digital cameras turn everyday life into a collective vérité project.
But there have always been anomalies, films that use slower, more cumbersome methods to contemplate reality. One of these is “Cousin Jules,” Dominique Benicheti’s slow and quiet study of French rural life, shot from 1968 to 1973 in a sumptuous widescreen format with stereo sound.
The digital restoration — the movie’s first American commercial release — conveys the rich images and subtle sounds that Benicheti and his crew captured during their visits to a rugged farmstead in the hills of Burgundy, the home of Jules and Félicie Guiteaux.
Both were born in 1891, but they represent a way of life that is much older. Jules, a blacksmith, works with an ease and precision that represent generations of handed-down know-how. His labor has an almost musical quality, enhanced by Benicheti’s sharp and subtle sound design.
There is a palpable nostalgia in this 40-year-old film, but it may also resonate among 21st-century devotees of the agrarian and the artisanal. With their hand-rolled cigarettes, free-range chickens and pour-over coffee, Jules and Félicie would be the coolest kids in Brooklyn.
The film is also hemmed in by its formal conceits. There is almost no dialogue, and it is hard to tell whether the narrowness of the couple’s existence is being observed by the filmmakers or imposed by the editing process.
Do they have friends? Political opinions? Religious beliefs? In suspending such questions, and in subordinating the reality of their lives to what is in effect an art project, the filmmakers treat Jules and Félicie as exotic specimens rather than fellow citizens.