Dominique Benicheti's Cousin Jules, shot between April 1968 and March 1973 near the Pierre-de-Bresse commune in Torpes, Burgundy, exists as a kind of cinematic ode to a historically rich region of eastern France. A politically precarious province for the majority of its existence (ruled over in turn by the Celts, Romans, Burgundians, and finally, Franks), Burgundy would, in the Middle Ages, establish a strong religious foothold, ultimately becoming one of the country's foremost stations for monastic worship. It's this spiritual identity which most saturates Benicheti's utopian vision of contemporary Torpes; while there's little suggestion of the tumult on which the country was built, there is in every frame a sense of past glory and misfortune weighing on the present day.
Following the daily vocational duties of an elderly blacksmith and his wife, Cousin Jules thoroughly documents a way of living, a way of loving, and a way of persevering in an era of substantial social and economic evolution. Shot in the already bygone CinemaScope format by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn and recorded in stereophonic sound, the film utilizes the most tremendous of technologies to document the most intimate of experience: that of physical labor and routine pleasures. With little contextual information or introduction beyond its locale, we simply watch as Jules and Felice Guiteaux tend to their everyday tasks. In the workshop he forges from fire, hammering and chiseling on anvil, while she mostly tends outdoors, gathering water and peeling potatoes; together they collect wood and maintain the grounds, convening in their adjacent home for lunches and dinners, likewise prepared by their own hands. Theirs is a secluded yet self-sufficient ecosystem, operated in an antiquated manner which, we sense, isn't only the historical norm, but also an act of personal, corporal preservation.
Despite such allusions to somatic permanence, much of Cousin Jules's power lies in its structuring, which is both bisected and branched by Felice's off-screen death. However unfortunate this event, it ultimately proved crucial to the film's visual chronology and thematic fortification. A lack of consistent financing might account for the intermittence of the production, which would shoot sporadically over the years as resources allowed, but the attendant effects of time—seasonal, terrestrial, material—play an important narrative role in the film's procession from the pastoral to the elegiac. With Felice absent for the second half of the film, the blacksmith's continuing plight feels less occupational than spiritual; his work and exertion may fulfill a physiological obligation, but the results of the labor—which is to say the ideologic, ecologic, and economic reinforcement—provide a devotional outlet for Jules which will, in turn, do its part to sustain a tenuously practical culture.
It's difficult to accurately gauge influence, particularly in the arts, and in the case of Cousin Jules, wider association seems unlikely, if not implausible, as the film was essentially pulled from circulation after failing to find a distributor following a small amount of local screenings. But while genuine correlation is dubious, Benicheti's film, itself likely shaped by the work of experimental and ethnographic filmmakers such as Jean Rouch and Robert Gardner who freely combined elements of fiction and reality, seems to have predicted an entire generation of observational documentarians. Unsurprisingly, you can sense a sort of spiritual kinship between Benicheti, himself a former professor at Harvard during the mid '70s, and the associates of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, the university's current creative division for media anthropologists, while elsewhere there's French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté, who in his nonfiction work similarly synthesizes various modes of realism; his latest, Joy of Man's Desiring, a meditative depiction of a cross-section of factory workers in industrial Quebec, is one of many recent films of undeniable thematic and aesthetic accord with Cousin Jules. Consciously or not, the cumulative effect of these subsequent works have amounted to an unintentionally appropriate lineage for a film of few words that nonetheless continues to say so much.
Before his death in 2011, Dominique Benicheti had spent a number of years restoring Cousin Jules himself. His work, done frame by frame and mostly by hand, was vital to the film's final restoration and is visible in the digital rendering. Cinema Guild's Blu-ray transfer is rich and authentic looking, with a heavy coat of grain and a very textured look as a result. Colors are occasionally soft, but are otherwise deep and vibrant. Overall, the image is bright, complimenting the many daytime scenes, while nocturnal moments produce thick blacks with little visible noise. The artifacts which do exist are solely due to the condition of the original print. Sound, meanwhile, is presented in a two-channel DTS-HD mix which attempts to harness at least some of the range of this complicated soundtrack. While effects remain a bit muddy, the mix sounds natural, with the rustling outdoor atmospherics, wildlife sounds, and metallic noise of the blacksmith's shop all resonating forcefully. The few instances of dialogue are upfront and easy to discern.
The sole digital supplement is a 12-minute look at Benicheti at work in his lab on the film's restoration in the late 2000s. He imparts some knowledgeable history of the CinemaScope and stereophonic technologies, and how they've both helped and hindered the preservation process, which at this stage included him literally taking a Q-tip to the original celluloid to dust surface elements. A small leaflet featuring an informative essay by Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, is included with the package.
A legitimate cinematic rediscovery, Dominique Benicheti's exquisite and prophetic Cousin Jules arrives on Blu-ray over 40 years after falling out of circulation. [Slant]