Cousin Jules

Cousin Jules ★★★½

Dan Talbot wanted to put this out through New Yorker Films in 1972 but couldn't because of the stereo sound, which arthouses weren't equipped to exhibit — a mildly surprising anecdote that provides a clear, if startlingly trivial, explanation of why this film's been so badly overlooked. It won a Jury Prize at Locarno in 1972, but could just as easily have done so last year; it's that stylistically ahead of history. Begins with a lengthy sequence of Cousin Jules performing his morning blacksmith duties, now isolating the pumping of bellows, now taking in his pounding of red-hot iron in close-up, acting as hypnotic immersion in non-talking routine/labor and as a surprisingly educational tract; you could probably teach someone how to be a blacksmith via repeated viewings. Lack of subtitles scared off the lazier elements of the NYFF press corps, which is hilarious because there's all of 19 lines of dialogue throughout. (Mostly about making coffee.) Husband wife share companionably silent lunch and coffee breaks. Time passes and different parts of Jules' routine get equal focus — his morning shave and sitdown with a paper, fetching wine for dinner, both husband and wife making dinner on their own — with glimpses of another, unidentified neighboring farmer-and-wife team. (Only other visible human is a rural grocery truck driver, who pauses and cheerily waves into the camera before driving off.)

A few times the camera speeds ahead of its subject, moving in orderly diagonals, camera movements that wouldn't be made by any arthouse director now. Most of this, though, is scarily prescient of contemporary embrace-the-sensuous-experience, loose-narrative hybrid documentary. (At the very least, Raymond Depardon almost certainly saw this before beginning his Portraits of Farmers series.) Melancholy ending, confirming your worst fears about why the wife disappears mid-film, casts the entire film, retroactively, as a drama about marriage and loss along with its anthropological elements. A major rediscovery.