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Between the bellows and the bed unfolds the universe of Cousin Jules. It is a small world, but polyvalent. He is Jules Guitteaux, a blacksmith in rural Burgundy, husband then widower, and cousin of the late filmmaker Dominique Benicheti, whose 1973 documentary film Cousin Jules pays celluloid homage to his existence. Benicheti’s film is, first and foremost, a monument to CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, but these technical achievements alone do not a masterpiece make.
Maestro-like, Benicheti coaxes mere footage of his cousin’s routines into a transcendent quotidian realism. Filmed in 1968 and 1973, the documentary straddles the death of Jules’s wife Félicie; brief footage of a gravedigger at work bridges the film’s chronologically disparate halves. Eschewing traditional documentary narrative, the baroque atmospherics of the film are anti-verbal; the first words are uttered a full 20 minutes in. “Il fait chaud,” (It is hot) says Jules to his wife, Félicie. “Oui,” she replies. And they continue masticating their meal of potatoes and bread.
The critic A.O. Scott, in his strange little review of the film for the New York Times, sniffs at the “exaggerated” depiction of the couple’s “self reliance” and whines: not enough ideology!
Do they have friends? Any other family? Political opinions? Religious beliefs? In suspending such questions, and in subordinating the reality of their lives to what is in effect an art project, the filmmakers treat Jules and Félicie as exotic specimens rather than fellow citizens.
Scott’s error is, ultimately, the tragedy that the film squarely confronts. Cousin Jules is not some glib provincial romance — it’s just the opposite, a paean to an altogether more serious, even Emersonian, notion of self-reliance. It explodes the myth of self-ambition into a thousand insignificant gestures, a daily genuflection not to triumphant perfection or even survival but rather to some murky primordial archetype of obligation, of love.
Together, Jules and Félicie speak remarkably little. Their relationship occupies that uncanny arena of understanding known only to those who grow old together. Félicie’s infirmity is apparent in the first half of the film, the 1968 footage — her hand quakes, she eats her food with greater hesitation than does Jules, who at one point pauses his own eating to ask after her appetite. This softly voiced concern reemerges as a tragic echo in the film’s second half, the long and palpable process of Jules making himself a soup of leeks, alone. Cousin Jules is about nourishment — not food as gastronomy, an obscene contemporary fetish object, or even mere sustenance — but rather the ritual of nourishment, and the nourishment of unintentional ritual.
From time to time the faintest grin of bemusement crosses the lips of Benicheti’s protagonists, and we’re confronted again with the intersubjective dimension of the film’s authorship. These are not mere potato eaters, peasants silently receiving the master’s brush. Nor is this some grandiose ode to the vanishing relics of a bygone era, unmolested natives brought to life under the documentary filmmaker’s generous eye. Jules and Félicie are also, sometimes, just elderly people humoring their cousin’s well-intentioned gaze.
Yes, cousin Jules is a blacksmith, and the footage of him at work in his smithy — with all its attendant mythology — opens the film and sustains it. Yet amid the bold-face bygones of this ambered profession, some familiar nostalgia is presented by the implements of his everyday life, making Jules at once knowable and irretrievably removed from our own experience: Jules shaves with a straight razor, cooks farm-fresh eggs, dresses in natty earth-tones and corduroys, and buys his groceries from a grey Citroën H Van (a model familiar to Western Europe’s savvy urban types as the vintage van of choice for de rigueur food vendors).
The elemental humanism espoused by the film takes root in this impossible familiarity; Jules is supposed to be both familiar and not, his experience complete and incomplete. In the back of his workshop, while Félicie prepares their coffee on the stove, we perceive two potted flowers on a far windowsill in the soft focus of middle-distance. We never witness their theoretically frequent watering, but we do watch Félicie fetch water from the well. A.O. Scott’s critique is useful again for what it misses: a collection of our most vital acts and thoughts, even those that may be considered quotidian, are the slick under which reposes the stuff of living, the monumental accumulation of individually menial acts and deeds.
The experiential topography of the banal and the quotidian is a recurring preoccupation of all art. Cousin Jules was originally released less than a decade after Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), that eight-hour landmark of hyperrealist minimalism. Today, similarly durational efforts abound in the world of fiction, with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series and Tao Lin’s Taipei differently inheriting the Proustian claim to personal experience. In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith diagnoses Lin and Knausgaard’s “narrative claustrophobia,” which for her is a sentimental antidote to the “overfamiliar Warholian nihilism” that is nonetheless similarly grounded in an aesthetically fertile boredom.
“In history, our imagination plays us false,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance.” “Kingdom and lordship, power and estate, are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day’s work; but the things of life are the same to both; the sum total of both is the same.” Cousin Jules negates the calculus of power and significance, the abacus of hour and era, and plumbs instead the ritual depths of daily life in search of a more gossamer sum.
Dominique Benicheti’s Cousin Jules screens at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Manhattan) through December 10.