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A Hard Row to Hoe

Modern Life (2008)

Soda Pictures

Director Raymond Depardon is also a photographer of some renown. His website is just astonishing, with painterly, well-composed landscapes and also portraits. This eye for capturing images and ability to position the camera to maximize the beauty of the local landscape is truly remarkable. But he did not win the Louis Delluc prize for the best French film of 2008 due to his eye for images. He won for his ability to tell the French a story about themselves.

"Modern Life" is a reminder that most French people, at heart, wish to be peasant farmers, sitting with their partner of 50 years milking cows by hand. They secretly yearn to rise at dawn and spend their days herding goats on mountainsides in all weathers. The trouble is, of course, is that the men and women who actually do these jobs have no such starry-eyed illusions about the lives they have chosen.

Every country has its myths, history, in-jokes and deeply cherished beliefs about its own identity. But few countries have been as loud and as proud about their idiosyncrasies as France. It’s a country of chic fashions, of well-coiffed women carrying better-coiffed dogs, but also of men in striped shirts and berets on bikes, each with a rope of garlic, wine and a baguette under his arm. But just as Paris balances a reputation for both romance and rudeness, so does France balance equally cherished traditions of city and country living.

In France, the hypermarket – a combination supermarket-department store – flourishes, as do the independent bakers, butchers, fishmongers, and other small traders. Just as the city is where most of the people work and spend most of their time, the country is where they go to relax, and like to know that it's always there ready for them. What Mr. Depardon shows in this film are the lives of people who are in the country all the time, small farmholders in the Haut-Garonne region of France, which is deep south for the French. The nearest large city is Toulouse, and the original local language is not French, but Occitan, which is closer to Catalan.

It took 10 years for this film to be made, years in which Mr. Depardon won the trust of his subjects in order to be invited into their homes and kitchens to set up his camera and interview them. It's part of a series of documentaries he's been working on for the last 20 years. To be invited into someone’s home in France is a profound sign of friendship, and to be allowed to film is something more. It’s easy to tell how much respect the farmers and their families had for Mr. Depardon to allow them in. I especially liked the farmer’s wife who broke all laws of filmmaking in offering a plate of sugar cookies not only to the interviewer, but also to the person holding the camera. They wanted him to make a good movie, and in his interviews (in which he always remains off-screen) you could practically hear him willing his subjects to open up and chat with him.

The difficulty is that the very stoicism, patience and deliberateness which make these people well-suited to life on a farm mean that they are terrible interviews. Truly, some of them reminded me of my young nephews cringing sullenly under an epic telling-off, the difference being hardly any of the farmers in "Modern Life" are on the young side of 60. Mr. Depardon does his best, but finds it almost impossible to pull more than one-word answers from his subjects. Everyone is in agreement, of course, that the main reason why farming is in decline is due to the generation gap between the young of today and the elders who own the farms. Then the two brothers, Raymond and Marcel Privat – who are the heart of the film, both bachelors in their 80s – are asked their opinion of the new wife of the nephew who works the farm with them. Neither says anything for a moment, until one of them gives an utterly marvelous triple – triple! – shrug while muttering he likes her fine.

Of course, Mr. Depardon immediately interviews the nephew’s teenage stepdaughter, who is working alongside the men on the farm. She is equally taciturn, equally monosyllabic, equally unwilling to articulate her thoughts for the camera. But she loves the farm, she says. She is looking forward to working on it more during her summer holiday. One wishes that more had been made about this connection between the two generations, but Mr. Depardon confines his comments mostly to the view, the light and the weather, allowing his subjects to speak, or not, for themselves.

Beautiful cello music plays over bookending images of the drives up through the mountains on winding tracks which are the ways to the individual farms of the people Mr. Depardon interviews. Haute-Garenne really is beautiful country; and in his voiceovers, Mr. Depardon discusses with excitement and passion the unique quality of the light in this part of France. For him, this is clearly a love letter to his home. It’s easy to like, easy to respond to and easy to see why it had to be made.

The most astonishing image is the shot of Raymond Privat staring at one of his cows, who has sat down in the middle of the stable and won’t get up. Three days later she is dead, and the farmer knows as soon as he sees her that this dairy cow is going to die. He could call out the vet and spend money on antibiotics, but it probably would be too late. As he stares at the cow, on his face an expression combining sorrow, annoyance, worry and love, we know he’s staring at his own future as well. Rarely has there been a metaphor as powerful on film.


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