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Friday, June 11, 2010
When life in the country is not so rosy
By KAORI SHOJI
Filmmaker Raymond Depardon is a committed man. He traveled to the remote and isolated Haute Garrone region of southwest France for a solid decade, meeting and interviewing an ever-dwindling community of farmers who had chosen to work the land in the way of their ancestors.
This was never remotely a reality TV project: Getting these overworked, tired out, sun-bleached Frenchmen to open up and say anything must have made pulling teeth look like child's play. Over a period of many years, Depardon managed to win their trust and establish a semifriendship that gained him access into farmhouse kitchens and inside some barns and arrive at a quiet, mutual understanding. The farmers knew that Depardon isn't interested in sound bytes, exploitation or sensationalism; he's there because of a simple desire to hear them out. Often the camera spends long moments transfixed on a single face, waiting patiently for a reply to some question of Depardon (heard only from a discreet distance) and when it doesn't come, remain politely in place until the next question.
Depardon is not exactly a household name even in his native France, but one look at the understated masterwork that is "Modern Life" will tell you his is a formidable talent laid out on a foundation of sincerity.
Depardon erases every trace of his own personality and agenda so that all the viewer sees are the farmers, their land, their animals; each frame is composed as an exquisite still life more eloquent than a thousand lectures on the need to go green.
On the other hand, "Modern Life" does nothing to dispel the gloom of a lifestyle that is, quite literally, on its last shaky legs. Most of the people depicted here are over 60 years old. Their children have left long ago, land taxes are a crippling drain on their scant resources, everyday is a struggle to reconcile the demands of work and the protestations of their aging bodies. Depardon makes no attempt to gloss over their difficulties, and to his credit he doesn't play up their plight either. Neither optimistic or unnecessarily tragic, "Modern Life" redefines the phrase c'est la vie with a proverbial shrug of the shoulders. Stripped of pretension, there's also a brutal, earthy beauty that charges the film, whose power takes hold on the senses with an iron grip.
The film revolves around the Privat brothers, Marcel (88) and Raymond (83) and, true to their name, they're both intensely private and reticent men. Having never married (why not? It's never explained), their land and the subsequent farming enterprise that go with it are to be passed on to their nephew, Alan.
In middle age, Alan has married a divorcee (they met via a personals ad) from the city: A fact which the brothers are none too happy about. The new bride, Cecile, is outspoken and confident — she's not afraid of hard work but is all for improvement and modernization. The brothers, who have done the exact same farm duties in the exact same manner for over 70 years, clearly resent Cecile's opinionated behavior and there is some allusion to a "power struggle" within the family. At the same time, the brothers know that the old must make way for the new and besides, they're not always up to the physical rigors of the job anymore. In one scene it's revealed that Marcel has indulged in a little morning sleep that day — until 9 o'clock! "I'm late today, really late," he grumbles to the camera. "9 a.m. — that's not morning, that's practically noon."
Some may look upon the deeply creviced faces and huge, work-scarred hands of the brothers and see a lifetime of daunting drudgery. But throughout the film, neither the Privats or any of the other farmers venture to complain, express regret or compare themselves to more privileged others. Isolated from the capitalistic hassles of industrialized agriculture and liberated from many of the indignities of old age, these farmers seem to enjoy a secret, mysterious freedom that city dwellers welded to their iPhones can never hope to attain.
Marcel drives the point home as he takes his flock of sheep into the mountains, his back straight and his slim figure encased in the same wool suit that he wears for work every single day. It's dawn and the light is still gray — the camera makes no attempt to follow but stays on Marcel who with strong, steady strides recedes further and further into the distance.