Earlier this year I watched the third part of Raymond Depardon's Profils Paysans series, La Vie Moderne. Having read about this film in Film Comment's report on Cannes in 2008, I was very eager to see this documentary. I loved the meandering style Depardon employed in this film, travelling from one farm to the next in rural France, interviewing farmers that he has grown to know very well over the course of his project (the first Profils Paysans was released in 2001, and Depardon had been filming his subjects for a number of years prior to it's release). The film starts with the camera as a car, travelling gently through a narrow winding road, to approach his first interviewee, and this slow drive through the countryside is a recurring motif throughout the film, marking a visual map that connects all of the farmers Depardon visits, and conducting the pace of the film, languid and slightly melancholic.(It also provides a kind of visual-twin to Kiarostami's many 'view-from-a-vehicle' shots). The film is pervaded with the feeling that the livelihood of the farmers is becoming increasingly more difficult, that the traditional profession of farming is dying and there are no younger heirs to continue the tradition. This is often revealed not through the simple and gentle conversations that Depardon conducts with his farmers, but through their silences, the moments where they look into the distance, reflecting, pondering.
I had the fortune of viewing four more films by Depardon recently (well four feature-length films, and one short ten-minute film, Quoi de Neuf au Garet?, to be precise). Due to prior commitments, I missed the first of the Profils Paysans,(L'Approche), plus Depardon's Direct Cinema-influenced documentary of the 1974 presidential campaign of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, 1974, Une partie de campagne. As is always the case when missing rare opportunities to see films not readily available on DVD, etc, I was somewhat downhearted at missing them, and they have been added to the ever-growing pile of 'maybe-someday-our-paths-might-cross' films. (There could be a whole future post on films missed and am waiting to see again).
But seeing the rest of the films made up for what I missed out on. Watching the second chapter of Profils Paysans, entitled Le Quotidien, after having seen the third, allowed me to see how the themes that permeated La vie moderne were already fully in place. (I've just realised that when I get to see L'Approche, I will have seen this trilogy backwards. I wonder if all trilogies should be viewed backwards, just to see what new flavours can be evoked?) Mortality, both of the traditional farming industry and of the farmers themselves, is at the heart of Le Quotidien, with the film starting with the funeral of one the farmers profiled in the first chapter. Yet, it's too easy to focus on the melancholy of the possible death of this way of life, and the impending demise of these elderly farmers, as the film also evokes a sense of determined survival. Spartan, functional, timeless living spaces, the fleshy maps of history on farmers' faces, and the panoramic vistas of French hillsides, all make for a visually delightful film. It's in these alluring shots that Depardon's vocation as a photographer comes to the fore – you can feel the energy of a shot being composed, as if at any moment the movement will stop and we are left with a snapshot frozen in time.
Les Annees Declic is an intriguing autobiography, with Depardon talking about his childhood and development as a photographer. He does this by having a camera directed upon his face, viewing photographs that mark a chronology of his life and experiences, and another camera directed upon the photos. The film simply cuts between him staring down and talking about his life, and the photos that trigger these memories. Shot in black and white, it feels unusual and yet oddly warm to see the director become the subject, staring quietly, for example, at a photo of his parents, lost in his own thoughts. Similar to the Profils Paysans, loneliness pervades the film, with Depardon reminiscing about lost friends and deceased family, but again the idea of survival comes up, with Depardon revealing to the camera at the end that art, images, photography, and film sustain him, that this is his family. The intensity with which Depardon wishes to say this is remarkable – the last photo is discussed, and Depardon appears to wrap up his autobiography. He then yells to someone off-camera to stop, and not to cut the film. He then delivers his final statement, revealing how his mother has died during the filming, and how the concept of family is maintained via photography, and who knows where it will take him tomorrow, the next day, etc. He delivers this with such passion, that the drop of clear saliva that hangs on his lip becomes an embodied coda to represent his fervour for images.
Depardon's two films on the exigencies of criminal law, The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial and Delits Flagrants, are perhaps the most compelling of all his films. The style and mood are a little different – they both feel a lot like a Wiseman film, the camera quietly observing moments in court (the first film), and all the moments that lead up to the actual trial in court (the second film). Delits Flagrants makes you wonder what will happen next to these people who are interviewed by lawyers, magistrates, court officials – will their refusal to admit to any wrongdoing make them come unstuck in court?Will they go to jail, Will they get off with a fine? You want to know what happens next, but the 'next' never comes, there's never any trial on display in this film, just continual build-up with no release. Depardon keeps layering more and more interviews, one after the other, as if to highlight the ceaseless nature of crime and prosecution. It's fascinating to watch one prolonged and significant segment of the film, viewing several interviews with a woman who has been arrested for stealing a vehicle, and seeing her go from initially admitting that she stole the car, to steadily concocting cover stories as she realises how serious her situation might become. Drug-fuelled bravado and bluster is incrementally eroded over the course of three interviews covering ten minutes, to show a fragile desparate not to go to prison. Moments of Trial is almost entirely set in court, and almost always in close-up, often simply cutting from a close-up of the magistrate to a close-up of the accused, with intermittent shots of lawyers, either prosecuting or defending. What is fascinating to watch here is the art of performance and improvisation, either from the person accused, often for minor offences, or from the lawyers. Those on trial become consummate storytellers, and the lawyers prosecuting or defending deliver their piece with all the gravitas of a orator, even though both accused and lawyers seem comical in the improvised speeches they deliver.
From seeing these films together, Depardon has leapt from 'unknown' to 'respected' in an instant. The fact that his films appear to be difficult to obtain makes the chase to view more of his films all the more compelling.