A blacksmith, husband, and small-plot farmer, Jules Guiteaux lives a life of clockwork regularity, narrowed down to a defined set of everyday tasks. This, at least, is how Dominique Benicheti presents him, and the documentarian's precise portrait of his country cousin attains a storybook simplicity, with Jules's daily routine incorporating years of ingrained experience, boiled down to practiced, elegant motion. Shot over five years, Cousin Jules feels similarly condensed, and its approach reflects that focus, abandoning chronological storytelling or exploration of social issues for a rhythmic fixation on one small life, shot in a way that accounts for both its august beauty and its innate difficulties.
After the events of May '68, many French activists and intellectuals looked toward the past for hints of how to construct a future. Finding inspiration in the prudent self-sufficiency of the country's rural breadbasket, a new crop of rustic films emerged, exploring the possibility of heading back to the land. The best of these—the workaday pragmatism of Georges Roquier's Biquefarre and the rigorous self-assessment of Alain Tanner's Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000—pushed past wishful thinking toward real considerations of the mechanics of agricultural settings. Benicheti's film feels just as concerned with future issues interpreted through a traditional lens, turning what could have been a straightforward document into an almost Marxist disquisition on a man who operates within his own discrete economic arrangement, while functioning as part of a larger system of intertwined pastoral tradition.
Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle imagines time as divided into two distinct sectors: our modern chronology, defined by rigid schedules and calendars, and a mythic pre-industrial pastoral reckoning, where the movement of seasons was the only indicator of passing time, thus granting life a more elliptical, less progress-oriented quality. That same pastoral time seems to be in effect here, in lives defined by the repeating occurrence of familiar chores. Dropping out of the rat race to engage in the supposedly soul-cleansing simplicity of such basic work was likely an enticing fantasy in the fallout of the early '70s, and has become one again, at a time when our lives feel more circumscribed by outside forces than ever. What makes Cousin Jules notable is that it manages to explore this once-again-relevant fantasy without fetishizing these lives or scrimping on their harsh, dehumanizing realities.
The fact remains that the winnowing of existence down to the completion of an endless series of repetitive tasks has the adverse result of stunting expression, something the film portrays by favoring procedure over communication. Jules and his wife discuss a few small matters over a meal, and then spend the rest of it in silence, a detail that can be ascribed to either to the sort of perfect attunement that requires no conversation, or the basic fact that these people have no real interior lives beyond their work. A bond clearly exists between the two partners, presented via small moments, as when Félicie brings in coffee to be boiled on Jules's workshop stove, but their inarticulate plainness is also presented as its own prison, and by dispelling vestigial illusions about rural labor Cousin Jules communicates a strong prevailing idea: We're all beholden to some imposed system of behavior, the tenor of our work dominating and largely defining the circumstances of our reality.
Approaching his lifestyle with ambivalence, the film still accords Jules enormous respect, showing an almost holy appreciation for the beautiful process of his blacksmithing work. Of all of Benicheti's interesting choices, the boldest is the surprising use of impressive widescreen visuals, creating compositions which, in the dazzling restoration being shown at Film Forum, depict the fine details of their work while shrinking them down to yet another facet of an expansive natural world. In these broad tableaux, which alternatively magnify Jules and diminish him amid his acreage, we see the Jules through a split lens of adulation and despair, he becomes an iconic figure whose simple status both illuminates and imprisons him. It's a bit reductive in terms of a personal portrait, but this is a film that's not concerned with telling the story of a man, instead making him a representative symbol of a mostly bygone way of life, a reminder of both the fleeting nature of individual experience and the steady patterns of a broader human existence.