Much of one’s ability to comprehend Farrebique must relate to the dynamics of the film’s power relationship between filmmaker and subjects. After cheerful music and painted images of nature accompany the opening credits sequence, director Georges Rouquier introduces an “old peasant family” of farmers one by one, each of whom is posing and either smiling or blank-faced for their close-up. Although the structure and accompanying voiceover situate the film as a documentary, the clear direction of on-screen action draws Farrebique into the realm of fiction.
Like Robert Flaherty, who in Nanook of the North and Man of Aran takes a comparable approach to constructing verisimilitude, Rouquier dispenses with the notion that nonfiction filmmaking necessitates eliminating the director’s hand. Set over the course of a year, and structured so that each of the four seasons plays a central role, Farrebique also recalls the films of Yasujirō Ozu for its insistence that a climate’s temperature becomes inextricable from time’s passage as it lingers in the minds of a region’s inhabitants.
Rouquier’s fingerprints, though, are only apparent in the sense that his camera works as much to arrange action as it does to assemble it; he doesn’t actually appear on screen at any point. In an early scene, when the grandparents debate having given their eldest son, Roch, too much leeway within the family unit, the shot-reverse-shot structure might as well have been borrowed from the films of William Wyler or any other classic Hollywood director. Other early moments, as when the family completes chores around the farm, suggest the sort of cinema vérité that wouldn’t become prevalent until Jean Rouch began making films in Africa in the late 1950s.
Also like Ozu’s films, particularly An Autumn Afternoon, Farrebique catches its subjects on the verge of pending modernization, which will radically alter, and also potentially short-circuit, the family’s generations-long trade. As the decision looms over whether or not to bring electricity into the family home, Rouquier moves his camera to nature itself, catching glimpses of plants sprouting out of the ground by using time-lapse photography, and also snow melting from the distant power lines that threaten to make their way into the domestic realm. The power lines quietly symbolize a sort of ticking clock against the family’s ability to survive in a technologized economy.
Rouquier integrates numerous instances of such implicit commentary by juxtaposing nature and animals with the family, so that something as inconsequential as flies swarming around a horse’s open eye becomes a charged visual metaphor, as if nature itself can anticipate, or even express, the mounting evidence that modernization is both a necessity and a nuisance. The family’s dilemma in weighing convenience and necessity against cost is a microcosm for the entirety of Europe in the aftermath of World War II as the continent faces an uncertain cultural future. Though Rouquier makes no direct nod toward such accumulating forces of dread, it’s embodied by the crisis of meaning and sustainability for both the current and future generations of farmers depicted in the film.
Farrebique never veers into surrealism like in the work of Jean Painlevé, but there’s a proto-Malickian sense of time and editing to Rouquier’s filmmaking, which is most apparent in several montage sequences where single spoken words correspond with one of the family members performing a task. It’s also the same approach that screenwriter Jean Cayrol takes to the voiceover in 1955’s Night and Fog, where the way words are said in conjunction with archival images of human catastrophe provides much of their impact. Though Farrebique makes no gesture to such images itself, its expressive conjoining of images and language places its sensibilities along a similar spectrum.
That the film concludes with a funeral procession where power lines are visible throughout indicates how Rouquier’s camera comprehends visual irony, so that the status of the sequence as fact or fiction, or whether it’s staged or captured spontaneously, doubles as an assessment of Farrebique’s significance as a whole. Documentary and narrative filmmaking can be combined to articulate crevices between lives as they’re both lived and scripted, something Rouquier appears intent to do throughout.