Facing the Contemporary World
Raymond Depardon is a filmmaker and photographer noted for his documentation of the French countryside. In this new documentary, “Modern Life”, he focuses on a small group of farmers that face the problems and challenges of modern contemporary life. They are suspicious of it and what they want to do is to keep the old traditions and methods.
The film is set in the Cévennes region in southern France, a region of hilly passes, lonely farms and lonelier farmers. There we meet the elder bachelor brothers Marcel and Raymond Privat, whose old-fashioned shepherding methods and primitive farming techniques lead them into contention with their younger nephew and his ‘outsider’ wife from Calais. There are also the dairy farmers Germaine and Marcel Challaye, who struggle to maintain their diminishing flock with no help from their numerous children, and chain-smoking solitary farmer Paul Argaud who is the epitome of disillusion and governmental disinheritance. Last is the Jeanroy family who offer a bleak picture of those that stay against the odds and whose son Daniel, who would much rather be doing anything else. Through these people, the film is a witness to lives, stories and values.
The film opens silently with the credits and we are soon reminded that rural life is slow and does not take to bells and whistles—it moves at its own pace.
The narration begins thus,
”At the start, there is always a country road, and at the end of the road, a farm”. We watch that road unfold and it goes its way through hills far away from city sounds. It’s 9:30 P.M. on a summer evening and 88-year-old shepherd Marcel Privat is bringing his sheep home from pasture. Depardon approaches respectfully and elegantly, he does not want to frighten the animals but he does want to capture what he sees.
The movie is made up of quiet interviews with farmers whose lifestyle is on the verge of extinction. Each interview begins in the same way—with a country road during which we are aware of the beauty of the countryside and the fragility of the area. The interviews are awkward; the camera is a modern invention and it is invading the countryside and therefore it is a threat. Depardon uses long takes and the truth that is revealed seems to be accidental.
The objective of the film is to begin a dialogue via film but a dialogue in which each is able to form his own opinions. The film is important not only because it is about a world that is disappearing. It also brings ambiguous feelings forward; feelings about family and about tradition in ways that are both thought provoking and edifying.
The landscape of the Cevennes region is stunning in its beauty, whether in spring, summer, autumn and especially winter, but the exodus of the young folk will, before too long, see the disappearance almost completely of all the small to medium sized farms as well as the people who live and work there.
In one small village there are only two families now and people from urban areas use the rest of the houses as holiday homes.
Filming over a period of twenty years, Depardon used a simple structural approach. He began each new section in a similar way, by filming his approach to each farm from his car. This leads to the viewer feeling an empathy with the natural surroundings and the climate at that time.
Depardon interviews and film fives families – all under imminent threat of losing their livelihoods. The saddest, in the true sense of the word, of the individuals shown was sheep farmer Marcel Privat. Eighty-eight years of age, he knew he was nearing the end of his life, having worked on the mountains since he was a boy. He gazed into the distance perhaps reflecting on what life he had lived there. He said he was not afraid to die but he looked a very unhappy and lonely man.
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 real and understandable. The film is essentially a series of portraits shot in locked-off single takes (with the occasional editorial cut), each separated by traveling 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 that we be fully engaged and perceptive.
We meet proud people (in the best sense) in the film and we sense the filmmaker’s affection and admiration and it is contagious. They have no use for pity, and there is no place for it. We are invited to see beyond the hardship and struggle in the hope that we will see ourselves in these people. This film is a love-letter, not only to those in the film, but also to those watching. The film gives a small isolated group of people the opportunity of expressing themselves, and (crucially) to be heard. The film is about how we live today as we look toward the future.