Though it won the grand jury prize at Locarno in 1973, Dominique Benicheti’s extraordinary documentary chronicling the everyday routines of an elderly blacksmith and his wife was never released, probably because not enough arthouse cinemas were then equipped to project in CinemaScope with stereophonic sound. Aesthetically allied to fiction films of the time in the epic deliberation of its widescreen lensing and the assertive autonomy of its soundtrack, “Jules” also prefigures present-day observational documentary filmmaking at its starkly lyrical best. Beautifully restored by Arane/Gulliver Laboratories, this Cinema Guild release should lure discriminating arthouse auds.
The film unfolds in real-time segments synched to the highly attenuated rhythms of its elderly subjects. Jules Guitteaux, Benicheti’s actual cousin, fires up his forge, heats an iron rod, splits one end and hammers each half into complementary curves, every laborious step in the process requiring multiple refirings, reheatings and rehammerings. These repetitive movements produce successive percussive sounds, amplified by the surrounding silence (the film is virtually dialogue-free), much like the soundtracks of “Sweetgrass” and “Leviathan,” two recent documentaries out of the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab. Perhaps not coincidentally, Benicheti (who died in 2011) taught documentary courses at Harvard at one stage or another during his innovative career.
In similar real-time intervals, Jules’ wife, Felicie, methodically peels potatoes for their lunch and draws water from the well for their coffee. All the couple’s movements are remarkably labor-intensive, even their machinery — the cranks and wheels that pump the bellows, rotate the grindstone or raise the well’s bucket — necessitating tremendous expenditure of effort. This reaches its apogee when, after a series of water-fetching/transferring/heating operations and a slow, arduous grinding of beans, Felicie drinks her coffee teaspoon by teaspoon, digging out the liquid in a circular motion that also expends a maximum of energy. (Jules, meanwhile, serenely sips his.)
Although each sequence transpires in real time, the film was shot over a five-year period, and there is no indication of the hours, days, months or years that may have passed between scenes. In the total absence of any exposition or any explanation, it only gradually becomes clear that at some point Felicie has left the picture, her death signaled by her physical absence and by Jules’ abandonment of the forge and systematic assumption of household chores, his movements even taking on some of Felicie’s obsessive inefficiency (he moves the mirror from one wall to another and then back again in order to shave).
Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn’s tranquil sweeping pans over the lush Burgundy countryside around Jules’ farm, dotted with slightly wispy trees of the sort that were prevalent in Gustave Courbet’s painted landscapes, record seasonal changes that find little echo in Jules’ repetitive, unvarying procedures. Yet even as the timelessness of the human activity on display seduces with its serenity, it evokes in modern viewers a definite impatience with the impracticality of traditional rites and rhythms, perhaps only enjoyable in 90-minute doses.
For the record, “Cousin Jules” was reviewed briefly by Variety at Locarno in 1973, described as “somewhat plodding and unclear in design … the kind of film that keeps a distance (from its subjects), prettifies the grim look of their rural lives and does not let them say anything.”