Cousin Jules | Blu-ray Review
After Cousin Jules took home the Special Prize of the Jury after it’s premiere at the 1973 Locarno Film Festival, Dominique Benicheti’s masterfully constructed observational documentary on the quiet life of his cousin Jules Guiteaux and his wife Félicie amongst the picturesque French countryside seemed to have vanished into the vastly overlooked void of cinema history. Forty years later, the film has returned triumphant, playing the likes of the New York, Berlin and Vienna Film Festivals in all its gorgeous CinemaScope glory. It was Benicheti himself who brought his dormant work out of storage to attempt a full restoration from the original negatives, but the process was stalled when the director suddenly passed on, leaving the project to be finished by his co-workers at the Arane-Gulliver film laboratories, where he was a leading consultant on 70mm and special format film projects.
Benicheti’s debut remains his only credited complete feature, yet between those seemingly silent forty years Benicheti busied himself with not only the technical aspects of film production while working in labs, but also behind the camera, lensing a lengthy little list of cinematic shorts in various mediums, many in 3D, not to mention that he was also tapped to teach documentary film production at Harvard and went on to work in the school’s Jefferson Laboratories of Experimental Physics and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, supposedly tinkering with a humanoid automaton. Credits be damned, the guy was certainly no slouch, and the one film now known once again is a formalistic masterwork of early experimentation within the documentary form.
Restricted by budgetary constraints due to the nature of the low-key project, Cousin Jules was shot over the course of a five year period, quietly documenting the daily rituals of a weathered man and his wife still living out a peasantry lifestyle that seems all but extinct outside of anywhere but maybe Amish communities. The man proved to be an adept blacksmith with a tool set of antiquated, but well oiled mechanizations powered only by sweat and elbow grease. Toiling over his forge with hammer in hand, Jules pounds out iron tools while Félicie is seen peeling potatoes, fetching water from their well and making coffee by hand, literally grinding the beans by hand and straining the grounds herself. So much more appreciation went into these goods than we could ever glean from our daily trips to Starbucks.
But most striking about Benicheti’s preservative vision of this traditional country lifestyle is not just the physicality of their workmanship, the solitudinal relationship they seem to share with one another or the profound absence that’s felt when Félicie quietly passes off screen, but how he manages to capture their existence with such deliberate construction. Surely this isn’t by a long shot the first to partially fictionalize the existence of a culture in order to encapsulate a greater portrait of their true being (see: Robert Flaherty). Throughout the film, the camera beautifully dollies about, pans around and glides along meticulously planned lines, allowing what at first glance might seem to be a single event to play out with a sublime grace, but when deconstructed is obviously a set of many repeated events shot from many angles and perfectly matched in the edit to appear as one single action. As technically complicated as this process is, especially with non-fiction material, Benicheti made it appear effortless, and for that, he will surely be remembered, thanks to this glorious restoration and subsequent re-release of the film.
With The Cinema Guild’s 10th Blu-ray release, they’ve delved backwards in time for only the second time (the first being with the release of their Alexander Sokurov boxset). Though lacking the copious amount of extras that is the norm for the distro, the quality of the film’s presentation is utterly outstanding. Benicheti himself began the film’s restoration before his death, and the filmmaker’s meticulous eye pervades the images found on screen. Despite it being now more than 40 years old, not a single frame shows a bit of wear. Sure, this is probably thanks to it never being shown after it’s initial debut, but one would think some chemical degradation would take place, as is normal for films long in storage, but the lush CinemaScope images shot by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn look sharp as a tack. And let’s not forget about the exquisite symphony of stereophonic audio – the clopping of wooden shoes on cobble stone, the pinging of hammer on iron, the subtle rustle of the breeze setting the background ambiance – that’s presented here on a vibrant DTS-HD stereo soundtrack. An outstanding presentation through and through.
Origin of the Restoration (2013)
Having become an experienced consultant of 3D technology in the wake of his first feature work, Benicheti had dreamed of converting Cousin Jules to be shown with the perception of depth. Just prior to his sudden death in 2011, the filmmaker finally began restoring his long dormant debut. He’s seen in this short explaining some of the technical decisions he made during the original shoot, as well as speaking on the restoration process itself. 12 min
Featuring some of the showier camera movements of the film, this trailer deftly re-stages the long forgotten film as a newly rediscovered work of great importance, rightfully. 2 min
An essay by Haden Guest lends quite a bit of context to the semi-mysterious Mr. Benicheti. As the Director of the Harvard Film Archive, Guest shares an academic lineage with the filmmaker, who, just two years after the completion of Cousin Jules, was brought in by none other than Robert Gardner to teach non-fiction filmmaking at the school. His enlightened perspective on both the man and his film are elegantly transcribed within.
One wonders how many films like this gem have fallen through the cracks of film history. How many missing links are slighting our perspective of cinema? True, it’s impossible to take in the whole of silver screen history, but this release is but another piece of evidence that there are true treasures being lost under unknowing eyes. By filling in the forgotten gaps with films like Cousin Jules, The Cinema Guild continue to soar as one of the premiere boutique distributors. Not only is the release of Benicheti’s film a revelation in terms of the history of the non-fiction form, but it’s presentation is nothing short of top-notch.