Jean Eustache was born on November 30th, 1938 in the village of Pessac. A small town of about 14,000 people, it was a community of mostly farmers, a representative example of French country life as it had been lived for centuries. But by the late 1960s, when he began to make films, the post-war boom had already begun to change everything. The population had grown to well over 30,000, and it was clear that the old way of life was on its way out the door. And so, alongside the towering The Mother and the Whore and such experiments as A Dirty Story, Eustache turned his focus to ethnographic documentaries of the French countryside.
The three films in question are The Pig and the two versions of The Virgin of Pessac. The first is a chronicle of a single activity, the slaughtering and butchering of the title animal. The latter two are both portraits of a local festival, the choosing of the city’s “Rose Queen.” Eustache first shot the 1968 iteration, and then returned in 1979. All three films received screenings at New York City’s brand-new Metrograph cinema, a rare event for works that haven’t gotten too much attention beyond their initial showings on French television. Their relative obscurity is a shame, too, due to the fascinating way that Eustache both embodies and complicates the mission of ethnographic preservation.
It would not be unreasonable to compare these documentaries to the much earlier work of such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Béla Bartók, traveling around the rural areas of their own nations to capture and preserve the melodies of folk songs. While Eustache wasn’t motivated by the same sort of turn-of-the-century nationalism, his methods of artistic documentation share an unexpected affinity with these musical forebears. These films display a remarkable attentiveness to rhythm and technique, bringing out the musical quality in the traditions they depict.
The Pig proceeds deliberately and chronologically, from living snort to cooked sausage. Eustache seems to hold a particular fascination for the most geometric activities, including the cleaning and roping together of intestines and their eventual filling with ground flesh. There is no music until the a capella songs shared at the final meal, no adornment or judgment. There is barely even any dialog. Instead there is communal method, techniques and practices repeated by a group of rural experts.
The same structure applies to The Virgin of Pessac, though the subject is less drenched in blood and guts. Eustache follows the selection and then presentation of “La Rosière,” the Rose Queen of Pessac’s summer festival. She has to be a young woman of marriageable age, a virgin, and a model of virtue. The modern contest, ostensibly a revival of a ritual that dates back to the 6th century, began in earnest with the death of a prominent citizen in 1896. His will funded the event and stipulated that the young woman be chosen by a committee made up of both officials and local women, ideally the wives of farmers.
The 1968 version and the 1979 version proceed nearly identically. Eustache begins with the April meeting of the committee, which discusses the nominees and then votes to elect that year’s Rose Queen. Then the films cut ahead to the celebration itself, held in June. The Rose Queen takes her seat in the front row of the local church, where she is given a flower crown by the priest. There is then a community procession down the streets of Pessac and a town-wide party featuring plenty of fruit and even more wine.
Of course, their structural commonalities hardly makes them identical twins. The differences go much deeper than the obvious fact of the 1968 film being in black and white while the 1979 version is in color. In the intervening decade, Pessac had boomed to a population of over 50,000. It was no longer possible to find 10 farmers’ wives for the committee, as there were almost no farmers left. In 1968, the committee had the luxury of rejecting one candidate because her father and siblings weren’t up to the same ethical standard. In 1979, the committee had trouble finding anyone at all to nominate.
Eustache highlights these differences by emphasizing the physical changes to the town. The 1979 film has recurring images taken from the upper floors of new apartment buildings, peering down on the procession from a previously impossible height. The World War I memorial where the Rose Queen deposits her flowers is now overwhelmed with automobile traffic.
The linchpin, however, which begins to even split the shared genre of the two films, is the way they incorporate history. The 1968 version is a document of continuity with the past. Like The Pig, it’s a record of a living tradition. At the concluding party, for example, the Rose Queen gifts a tray of strawberries to every former winner present at the celebration. More than a few of them approach the mayor’s microphone, delighted to share their memories with the crowd. The eldest is a 92-year-old woman who won the contest in 1900, then only in its fifth year.
This particular tradition is no longer present in the 1979 version of the film. Instead of closely felt continuity, there is slightly distant appreciation. The party is sponsored by the “Friends of the Beautiful and Old Pessac” an organization made up of older men who wear elaborate red robes and commit themselves to the study and promotion of their town’s history. In a rare moment that celebrates someone other than the Rose Queen, they induct their newest, youngest and first female member.
A decade before, this occasion was simply the 73rd iteration of a continuing ritual. In 1979, however, the festival has been invaded by the concept of “history,” which situates the tradition in the past. It’s a subtle change, to be sure, but that doesn’t soften its finality. The first film, like The Pig, is aneffort to capture a cultural resource before it disappears. The second, however, has lost something of that initial project. Taken together, the two versions of The Virgin of Pessac are a unique opportunity to explore the nuances of history and ethnography.
The Virgin of Pessac screens once more at New York City’s Metrograph cinema on Tuesday, March 15th.