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French documentary ‘Cousin Jules’ moves with rhythms of farm life

“Cousin Jules” is one of those rare experiences that’s rooted in the past yet feels very much of the moment. On top of that, it’s timeless. Even the film’s appearance — in a restored re-release print at the Museum of Fine Arts — is a joke played on history. Shot over five years in the Pierre-de-Bresse area of Burgundy, Dominique Benicheti’s documentary about an elderly farmer, Jules Guiteaux, won the top prize at the 1973 Locarno Film Festival and promptly dropped from sight. Who would expect a slow, uninflected, non-narrative portrait of French peasants to find a commercial release?

Forty years on, groundbreaking nonfiction such as “Sweetgrass” (2009) and “Leviathan” (2012) immerse audiences in the rhythms and routines of working life, to mesmerizing effect. Both of those movies came out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and are the work of its director, Lucien Castaing-Taylor; coincidentally or not, Benicheti himself taught documentary filmmaking at Harvard at one point in his career. (He died in 2011.)

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