It’s always a sad state of affairs when a good film doesn’t get an audience; it’s an outright tragedy when an audience doesn’t get the chance to see a genuinely extraordinary work of art. Despite wowing viewers and winning an award at the 1973 Locarno International Film Festival, Dominique Benicheti’s you-are-there chronicle of French blacksmith Jules Guiteaux and his wife, Félicie, going about their daily business seemed destined for eternal obscurity. The documentarian insisted that his labor of love be shown only in CinemaScope and with stereo sound, exactly as he shot it; distributors balked at the notion of shelling out extra dough to make prints that many theaters, sans the proper equipment, wouldn’t be able to show. So there Benicheti’s poetic ode to a bygone rural world sat, wasting away, until fans funded a digital restoration of the movie, the New York Film Festival gave the DCP a belated American screening in 2012—and Cinema Guild and Film Forum picked up the ball for a full theatrical run.
Vive the peasant-life procedural! Rising phoenixlike from the ashes of neglect, Cousin Jules doesn’t seek to elevate its elderly subjects so much as capture them in a state of being: I hit the red-hot metal, I grind coffee and peel potatoes (paging Jeanne Dielman!), and I sharpen my straight razor on a whetstone, therefore I am. Long takes let viewers luxuriate in a fetishistic attention to country-life detail; the fact that this spiffed-up version lends a visual hyperreality to every greased gear and green blade of grass only heightens the hypnotic pull. Whether endless scenes of labor rendered as a widescreen, surround-sound epic strike you as vérité bliss or some exercise in urban-Zen wish-fulfillment (should one man’s toil serve as another’s techno-transcendental experience?) is a subjective question. For 91 minutes, the pleasure of the Guiteauxes’ company is ours. We are ultimately the richer for it.
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