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The title of Christophe Agou’s documentary alludes to what the director and his main interviewee would stealthily say to each other every time they parted, so as to make sure they would always meet again. Those two words has since taken on a much more melancholic meaning, as the French photographer turned filmmaker died from cancer last September before he could even finish the postproduction of what would become his first and last full-length feature.
It’s perhaps a shame Agou couldn’t see his project through. No Farewells is a moving denouement to his decadelong photographic and video documentation of a closely knit community of impoverished farmers struggling with their daily lives in a French village.
Intimate, empathetic but admittedly episodic at times — with some jarring editing decisions and an excessive use of fade-to-black — No Farewells thrives because Agou didn’t simply drench his subjects in misery. He also managed to tease out the vibrant, steel-willed and surprisingly droll personalities of these poor, forgotten souls struggling to make ends meet.
The late Agou already attained prominence in the photographic realm with two award-winning collections — his 2010 tome about French farmers, In the Face of Silence, was preceded by a 2004 book about the New York Subway entitled Life Below — and his passing last year could spark further interest in No Farewells. The recent election-fueled discussions in France about the country’s rural poor should also make the film socially relevant, as shown in the packed public screenings at Cannes’ independent ACID sidebar.
While a considerably low-fi affair — the visual texture reflects how most of the footage was shot in the early 2000s — the film’s thematic similarities with Raymond Depardon’s Profils paysans triptych might still interest documentary festival programmers. The film also benefits from the music of Stuart A. Staples, the frontman of British band Tindersticks, who wrote the soundtracks for Claire Denis’ recent films, including her latest Cannes entry Bright Sunshine In.
No Farewell‘s opening montage speaks volumes about the film’s general tone. Images of grey skies and muddy fields are followed by a shot of a goose fighting off a dog — and then their owner, the 75-year-old farmer Claudette, bursting into view and barking hilarious orders at the animals. This mix of harsh lives and humor continues throughout the film.
Another farmer, Jean-Clement, speaks vehemently against overrated “material progress,” and prepares a note to embarrass a visiting government inspector — a ploy that flounders when she simply doesn’t show up. Meanwhile, older grape-grower Jean brandishes his breakfast for champions: stale bread and rose.
But Claudette remains the star of the show. Agou films her quotidian life in all its color and glory: the battles with bureaucrats on the telephone, for example, or her love-hate relationship with her pet canine, who seems to be her sole companion in life. The film eventually ends with her, years after all those first encounters with Agou, moving about in a newer, neater and bigger house that she describes as being “like a hospital.”
Agou doesn’t offer an easy answer to this potential debate about economic development and its discontents. Then again, No Farewells is probably not that kind of film anyway: Made on a small scale but with a big heart, it’s a piece about real lives on the ground, far from the powerful political center.
Production Company: Les Enrages
Director-cinematographer: Christophe Agou
Producers: Aurelie Bordier and Pierre Vinour
Editor: Virgine Danglades
Music: Stuart A. Staples
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
Sales: Les Enrages
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