Formally ambitious on the grandest scale, Dominique Benicheti’s 1973 documentary Cousin Jules earns an oft trotted-out maxim: This film is unlike any other you will see all year.
Well, one exception: Cousin Jules is an antecedent to Leviathan, the fishing doc rightly billed as a work of sensory ethnography. Like Leviathan, which doesn’t tell a story but rather relates the sensuous immediacy of its subjects’ lives through raw, visceral images presented without narrative context, Cousin Jules concerns the essence inherent in actions, the way quotidian existence can be suffused with poetic peacefulness — and overwhelming sadness.
Benicheti’s subjects are an elderly blacksmith (Benicheti’s cousin) and his wife. As we observe their daily routines — Jules working with his tools, his wife preparing meals — this almost wordless doc sinks us into a tranquil rhythm that may feel somnambulant to some stimulus-addled urbanites.
The effect on those who are willing to exert a little patience will be entirely different. Benicheti’s commitment to his formalism, to the unstinting excavation of a time and place in the hopes of creating overwhelming verisimilitude, is practically monk-like in its dedication (and indeed, another film descendant is Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence); through his commitment, we begin to experience the film as a kind of mindfulness in action, the viewing of the picture as an immersion in a meditative state.
Thoroughly transporting, the peacefulness and clarity of Cousin Jules can’t help but reveal, by contrast, the restlessness and agitation too common to life today.