“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.)
“Cousin Jules” watches the rural blacksmith — who was indeed the director’s cousin — go through his morning ritual of firing up the forge and hammering metal into useful shape. The takes are long and attentive, the soundtrack devoid of anything but the noises of this world: far-off bells, the creak of wooden wheels, the plod of cattle returning from the field. Benicheti, who was something of a technologist, made the unusual choice to shoot “Cousin Jules” in wide-screen CinemaScope with stereophonic sound, and the choice pays off, especially in the restored print playing at the MFA. The film is hyper-real.
Guiteaux doesn’t say much, nor does his wife, Felicie. They work too hard and, more to the point, their lives are their work, in a manner that short-circuits commentary, philosophy, or sentiment. A sequence in which Felicie makes a cup of coffee — a seemingly endless series of tasks — is, on one level, an ode to old ways. Yet it’s also a closely observed essay in how the doing of a job is inseparable from its end. A viewer might be tempted to say that Felicie’s coffee probably tastes better than a Venti from Starbucks, but even that romanticizes the matter more than the film does.
In its steady, stately fashion, the documentary alternates between macrocosm and microcosm, giving us painterly images of the Burgundy landscape before focusing on the small, momentous act of sewing a button on a shirt. Between one of those shifts, Benicheti inserts a shot of the wife coming out of the outhouse, a deadpan reminder of the reality principle that is this movie’s bedrock. At about midpoint, the wife disappears from the proceedings; no one needs to say she has died. Jules and the film keep going.
“Cousin Jules” began shooting in April 1968, as France balanced on the edge of student revolution. In some ways it’s a retreat from the violent complexities of the 1960s and a search for meanings and ways of life that endure. It’s anything but a back-to-the-land nostalgia trip, though. There’s a respect for the actuality of things and a refusal to embellish that keeps the film from aging. At the end of one of the blacksmith sequences, Jules puts down his hammer and walks away, yet it continues to vibrate, like a tuning fork. You sense it’s vibrating still.