Cousin Jules: Film Review

The quiet and beautifully simple doc captures a vanished age.

Cinema Guild unearths a document of French country life that has sat unreleased since 1973.

An almost wordless, wholly observational account of a blacksmith's routine in rural France, Dominique Benicheti's Cousin Jules enjoyed acclaim at festivals (including a jury prize at Locarno) after its completion in 1973 but never got distribution, even in its home country. Rescued from decay after the director's 2011 death and looking radiant in a 2K restoration, this quiet gem is a time capsule whose potential audience may be small, but will be transported.

Benicheti, who had a long career making films in boundary-pushing tech formats (he shot a 70mm, 3D doc in France's Chauvet Cave ten years before Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams), may have hindered his chances at distribution by shooting this intimate work in both CinemaScope and stereo. Even in a conventional format, it's easy to imagine distributors asking how many tickets they could possibly sell: The film's action (shot over five years, but edited to flow as if it were a single day of chores) consists of little more than a very old man working in his blacksmith shop, eating with his wife, tidying up around the house and so on; dialogue, on the rare occasions it occurs, rarely consists of more than a couple of succinct sentences.

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But for the patient viewer, particularly one seeking respite from the modern world, this day-in-a-life may be an almost spiritual experience. Benicheti and his cinematographers frame scenes exquisitely, evidently going so far as to use a dolly for shots tracking movement from house to barn or shop. (Many contemporary docmakers working in observation-only mode would be well advised to pay even a quarter as much attention to aesthetics.)

The opening scenes offer particular pleasure, following Jules's morning work uninterrupted -- lighting kindling, working a wheezing bellows to stoke the flames, heating iron and pounding it into shape. As the day continues, the viewer's mind may occasionally wander in not-unpleasant ways, sinking into routines like shaving, peeling potatoes and sweeping the floor along with Jules and wife Felicie. (Felicie died during filming and is absent in evening scenes, giving the close of day a special poignancy.)

Many viewers will wish Jules would speak to the camera from time to time, or that we would see him and his wife partaking in some recreation beyond their silent coffee breaks. But Benicheti seems by the end to suggest that the way Jules performs chores is his personality -- orderly, practical, humble. Sitting in his presence for an hour and a half is an experience worth fighting off restlessness for.

Production Company: Rythma Films

Director-Screenwriter: Dominique Benicheti

Directors of photography: Pierre William Glenn, Paul Launay

Editor: Marie Genevieve Ripeau

No rating, 91 minutes