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Modern Life, Old Partner, Way of Nature

September 6, 2009

Raymond Depardon, 2008 | Lee Chung-ryoul, 2009 | Nina Hedenius, 2008

 

The films of Raymond Depardon are rarely seen in this neck of the woods. Apart from the superb Tenth District Court and the short film that opens To Each His Own Cinema (one of the better efforts in that patchy concoction), Depardon’s films have not made it this far south (to my knowledge). Which is a pity, because Depardon’s films are worthy of attention, and MODERN LIFE (Profils Paysans: la vie moderne) could emerge as one of the unassuming masterworks of this year’s festival.

 

From what I can gather, Modern Life is closer to Depardon’s usual artistic preoccupations than either 10th District Court or his short for To Each His Own Cinema. All of his films appear to share a compassionate concern for quotidian business of human society and survival, and in this film he returns to the Haute-Garonne region of southwest France to catch up with the people at the centre of the series of films to which Modern Life belongs, which includes Profils Paysans: l’approche (2001) and Profils Paysans: le quotidian (2005). While it would have been interesting to see the previous films too, Modern Life is a complete and wholly satisfying entity in itself.

 

Depardon grew up in a rural farming community, so he knows about farmers and their connection with the land, the seasons, and animals – and it shows. His empathy and sincerity is unmistakeable. His artistic interested in rural life took hold while working as a photojournalist on a visual essay about the decline of small-scale farming and the ascendency of industrial agriculture. But as he saw it, there was no such decline. Over a ten-year period, he has developed a strong and trusting relationship with the people of Haute-Garonne, and believes that his Profils Paysans cycle of films does not subscribe to the miserabilist view of rural life that abounds in the French media. I have to say, it’s difficult to wholeheartedly agree. The world depicted in Modern Life is far from rosy.

 

The film is essentially a series of portraits shot in locked-off single takes (with the occasional editorial cut), each separated by travelling shots filmed front-on from the roof of a car. These shots are stunningly hypnotic, and act as a formally compelling counterpoint to the static interior interviews. Shot in widescreen, Depardon’s long-take compositions are impressive, but they also serve an important formal function. Apart from giving the participants all the room (and dignity) necessary to speak in their own time and in their own way, it gives the viewer what Depardon calls “reading time”, the liberty to explore the frame and discover things for themselves, and rightly so. Modern Life requires a fully engaged attitude from the viewer, but it is no stark piece of minimalism.

 

The film pivots around the ageing Privat brothers, Marcel (88) and Raymond (83). Their nephew, Alain Rouvière, has recently married Cécile, and while this has brought joy to his life, the uncles aren’t so chuffed. But Alain’s marriage and the subsequent friction is only one of a number of changes these old men of the land struggle with. Marcel is finding the irreversible consequences of age debilitating, humiliating and demoralising. Less able to combat the elements, he can only watch as grazing land turns to scrub, stock numbers decrease, and his life’s work slowly falls away. 63-year old Paul Argaud, has taken to watching television and smoking – and saying very little. 80-year old Marcel Challaye and his 70-year old wife Germaine are forced to sell their cows. The land is too steep for him now, and land-taxes are crippling. A young couple, Amandine and Michel Valla, realise that their goat-rearing prospects aren’t looking too good. The middle-aged Daniel Jeanroy is the only one of six children to remain on the farm with his aging mother and father, too old to handle it alone. Daniel resents having to work the farm, and would rather do something else – only he doesn’t know what.

 

As you can see, the film isn't exactly awash in optimism, but Depardon doesn’t see it that way, and frankly, I’m not about to argue. The one undeniable truth about the people we meet in this film is that despite the challenges that face them, they are pragmatic and fiercely self-reliant. They are survivors, proud people (in the best sense), and the affection and admiration the filmmaker has for them is contagious. They have no use for pity, and there is no place for it in Modern Life either. Depardon invites us to see beyond the hardship and struggle in the hope that we will see ourselves in these people – as he does. The film has been described (probably by Depardon himself) as a love-letter, not only to the people who appear in the film, but also to those watching. Depardon gives an isolated community the opportunity to express themselves and be heard, and as such his film serves an important socio-political purpose. Some may only see aging farmers in an insignificant rural sector in decline, while others will see themselves, their family, and their friends.

 

 

Raymond Depardon says that Modern Life is, above all, about life today, but it also looks towards the future. This is a more sobering comment than it might at first seem, and it applies equally to first-time filmmaker Lee Chung-ryoul’s OLD PARTNER, a top grossing film in South Korea, and one of the understated gems of this year’s festival. It has similarities with Modern Life in that it portrays the rural life of a farmer, his wife, and their hard-working old Ox, all of whom are approaching the end of their lives. It’s almost certain that before this beautifully observed 75-minute film is over, the Ox will be free of its yoke, but farmer Choi does all he can to forestall the inevitable for as long as possible. “The Ox,” he says, “is my karma”, but the ever-complaining Mrs Choi is having none of it, and not without some justification.

 

Modern Life and Old Partner are lyrical reflections on life and death, and each has strong philosophical views to express. However, they are very different from each other, and while both are enjoyable and engaging, Modern Life is the more formally satisfying. Lee’s tendency to milk the inherent pathos of his subject's situation stands in revealing contrast to the aesthetic quality of Depardon’s approach, particularly in terms of the trust Depardon extends towards his viewers. Given the delicate spiritual and philosophic tone of Old Partner, the film could easily have been even more contemplative and austere, but no less engaging if handled correctly. The music, while not constant or insistent, occasionally imposes itself on moments that would have been more eloquently if left silent. As a first time filmmaker, Lee can’t be criticised too severely for wanting to ensure that his film touches people, and (again) judging by the audience response it certainly hasn't stopped people liking the film.

 

Quibbles aside, this genuine and revealing film about the 40-year friendship between two humble soul mates (and Mrs Choi too) is sure to find an appreciative and justly deserved audience. Like Modern Life, it depicts a way of life with distinct traditions and values that are steadily vanishing, and has much to say to a world reeling from the erroneous imperatives of consumption and greed.

 

Nina Hedenius takes a quietly meditative approach to her subject matter in WAY OF NATURE (Naturens Gång), aiming for a simple visual poetry to balance her humble political intentions. She almost succeeds. While not quite in the same league as Raymond Depardon’s cinematic naturalism, Way of Nature is a gentle elegiac study of the cycles of life on a Swedish dairy farm run by Karl-Gustav Hedling, a man renowned for his efforts to ensure the genetic survival of native breeds of animals. Shot over the course of a year (from one winter to the next), this ‘made for TV’ film is pro-life in an elemental sense, a celebration of the seasonal rhythms of farm life that reveals the symbiotic relationship between humankind and the natural world. Karl-Gustav is an inspiring fellow, and his work is worthy of our attention, and while Way of Nature may be great TV, it’s not so great as cinema.

 

On paper, this is my kind of documentary: primarily visual, dialogue and narration free, pertinent subject matter, etc., but overall I found it disappointing. The film raised unintended questions about when to use music and when not to, and when is a shot too long or too short. The music of Charles Ives is lovely, but as with all the music in this film, it lent a degree of emotional gravity that was intrusive, pandering, and curiously fictionalising. More effective was Karl’s kitchen radio, with news-reports providing an effective contrast between an organic rural philosophy and the destructive short-term gains of consumption and greed. 

 

But the main issue for me was shot length. There must have been a huge amount of footage to choose from (it was a year’s shoot, after all), which I guess accounts for the insistent cutting – not that it was hurried, but neither was it leisurely, and for a film about the rhythms of nature it was frustratingly clipped, when it could have been a more contemplative experience. After a while the yearlong structure felt like a liability, as if there was too much to see and not enough time to show it. The constant cutting to something new and worthwhile image (another birth here, another tree there) undermined the poetry that one assumes Hedenius might have been striving for, and ironically made the film feel out of sync with the rhythms of the world it sought to celebrate.

 

By not allowing room for what Depardon calls ‘reading time’ (the chance to consider what we see), Hedenius essentially holds the viewer captive. The first birth we see (of a cow having twins) had an almost Depardon-like eloquence, but by the time the third foal struggled to get to its feet (with other animals looking on in silent awe before this quotidian miracle), I was hanging out for winter to arrive so I could go get a coffee. At 108 minutes, Way of Nature is hardly long, but it felt that way in the fresh-air-starved Academy theatre. Still, as a reminder of our interconnectedness with all things and as a gentle warning against squandering what is fundamentally precious, the film has undeniable value.

 

Originally published in The Lumiere Reader

 

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