About midway through Cousin Jules there is a moment of absolute tranquility. A long shot of a stream shows a group of birds, presumably ducks, drifting along in the pale light of morning. Here, in the rural farmlands of France, we have come to find peace, quiet and natural beauty. Then a shot rings out, quite unexpectedly. There were no hunters in the frame, only the pristine landscape. None of the ducks appear to have been killed by that one bullet, which for all we know may have been pointed in an entirely different direction, but they all scatter anyway. Where was once silence there is now rushed clamor.
In a single scene, that is the spirit of Dominique Benicheti’s 1973 film. It has in it everything you might expect from a simple, vérité documentary of rural life, with its humble breezes and slowly changing seasons. Its aged central couple, Jules and Félicie Guiteaux, barely speak. One wonders if what little conversation they do have is but for the sake of the camera. After decades of marriage, they live in the same rhythmic patterns, knowing each other instinctively. Speech seems practically unnecessary. Benicheti shows their silence in the context of their love, and of nature itself. Cousin Jules possesses the gorgeous pastoral hush that characterizes so many great films of the countryside, fiction or otherwise.
Yet is also a profoundly noisy film. Jules and Félicie are not quiet people. He’s a blacksmith, an occupation basically made up of clanging metal things against other metal things. There’s obviously much more skill and experience involved, which Benicheti makes sure to highlight. For a contemporary, urban audience the process of metallurgy can seem almost magical, and it certainly does here. Yet Benicheti is also clearly fascinated by the sonic elements of this profession, the sharply pitched dings of iron being hammered into shape and the hissing of water on hot metal. All of these sounds are expertly rendered in the new restoration of the film, immersing the audience in a long-forgotten forge.
Félicie also gets plenty opportunity to liven up the soundtrack. Benicheti pays close attention to every vegetable she chops, collecting the crunches of home-grown, colorful produce. Farming, cooking, and eating are all rich aural experiences, perhaps because Benicheti knows that he can’t access his audience’s senses of smell and taste with a film. Yet there’s another dimension to this almost constant, often loud presence of physical activity.
Cousin Jules is not a monument to the natural quality of farmers. Many films, many images in general have looked at rural life and seen a seamless integration with the environment. While it is true that Jules and Félicie are closer to the natural world than those of us that live in urban apartments, they’re still human beings exerting a very active sort of control. The noise is an expression of this positive, boisterous presence. Jules and Félicie are people, not part of the landscape.
Benicheti spent five years in this village, filming and building a narrative. This dedication and the resulting footage allow him to make one final gesture, raising up Cousin Jules to a final degree of universality. It suffices to say that the film has just as much in common with Amour as it does with Sweetgrass, if not much more so. Perhaps to be expected in a work about old age, there is indeed the specter of death and dying, entirely appropriate in the context of constantly renewing farmland. The cycle of life is not unique to rural France, or rural anywhere, and its emotional weight is front and center in Benicheti’s film.
This blending of genres, a nonfiction feature about an aging relationship mixed with a soundscape of rural life, may have been part of why Cousin Jules wasn’t able to secure U.S. distribution back in 1973. Now, however, is another moment in which we are attuned to the potential of nonfiction film to break away from strict ideas of style and form. Cousin Jules feels like a spiritual forebear to These Birds Walk and Sweetgrass, even if the filmmakers involved had no opportunity to see it. It’s also a lot better than many of these newer films, frankly, which makes this a unique opportunity to induct a forgotten classic into the canon for documentary filmmakers and fans alike.
Cousin Jules is now playing in New York City.