Film Review: Cousin Jules

Gorgeously restored, often mesmerizing decades-old documentary about an elderly peasant blacksmith/farmer eking out a very bare existence in rural Burgundy provides the ultimate in counterprogramming for those who might appreciate a near-halting change

Shot from 1968 to 1973, Cousin Jules falls into a subgenre of documentaries and dramas that, lacking a name, are minimalistic and soothing, sometimes to the point of being soporific. Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattre Volte and the doc Sweetgrass come to mind, as these also lull the brain. But among the most successful of these was a real sleeper, Zeitgeist Films’ Into Great Silence, about a strict monastery, which won over critics and viewers alike.

What sets Cousin Jules apart, aside from the fact that it is among the more interesting in this group, is that it was originally shot in 35mm Cinemascope and recorded in stereo sound—unusual for a documentary—and has been beautifully brought to life for contemporary audiences (especially those appreciative of the big screen) with a 2K DCP (digital cinema package) restoration. 

The viewing experience is immersive and magical, as the late filmmaker Dominique Benicheti, a film academic who had taught at Harvard and had a deep interest in technical advances for cinema, insisted upon his work being seen under maximum conditions. So until now, Cousin Jules never got distribution because Benicheti wanted the film projected in Cinemascope with stereo sound, rarities considering how documentaries were customarily filmed.

With veteran French cinematographer Pierre William Glenn (along with Paul Launay) behind the camera, Cousin Jules is breathtakingly beautiful and the stereo sound (natural, ambient sounds as dialogue is sparse and moot) is equally memorable. While tech qualities are to the max, content could hardly be more minimal as the film focuses on peasant Jules Guiteaux who, somewhere in his 80s, lives and works on a simple farm of a few small structures. His tasks include feeding the chickens and a cat, tending a small garden, gathering eggs, packing bundles of branches and hauling them by horse-driven cart. Much time is spent with Jules in his crude workroom where he forges metal. The objects he fires and hammers are somewhat of a mystery, as they don’t look like horseshoes.

Little is seen of wife Félicie except for her helping her husband with gathering wood, making him coffee or sharing with him an occasional, largely silent meal in the room where he sleeps and eats, usually alone. On the menu is a simple vegetable soup that Jules makes by throwing carrots, potatoes, leeks, whatever into a boiling pot. And the inevitable wine, bottled at home.

Besides the few small wood structures, the meager mini-estate is also characterized by lots of piled wood for the fireplaces and stoves, a well, and a simple outhouse. Many pastoral, often misty exteriors are shot like stills. A lovely shot of a duck pond is brutally interrupted by the loud pop of gunshots.

Presented without music, Cousin Jules is also practically devoid of dialogue, except for a few almost indistinguishable words, like those from a van driver in the distance selling Jules butter and other basics.

A kind of reductionist spin on the decades-old book and documentary Village in the Vaucluse, Cousin Jules makes its impact as an often fascinating ethnographic study of peasant survival and a pastoral life long gone. When it is not mesmerizing as audiovisual spectacle of a most unexpected kind, the film is also a reminder that—as embodied by Jules himself and his dark, calloused hands—less is more, especially when it has to be.