A New Battle of Hernani
The Film That Won’t Be Shown at the Cannes Festival: Farrebique
An overwhelming majority of the commission in charge of selecting great French films for the international Cannes festival has voted against Farrebique, four seasons in the life of a farmer family. And that’s completely normal; if it had not, something in cinema would have changed. I remember all too well the professional reception of Eisenstein’s Staroye i novoye [The General Line] in 1925: “What’s the importance? We have had tractors in France for a long time now…” I’m actually wondering if the commission would have selected an epic film like La bataille du rail, even though it has some professional actors fortunately authenticated by real railway workers, if the film hadn’t had considerable success in the theatres…
At present, a film is considered ‘epic’ if it at least presents: some action around a more or less gratuitous theme; invented dialogues, most often perfectly insipid in spite of the torture the screenwriters and dialogue writers subjected themselves to; actors whose performances are sufficiently exaggerated to illustrate feelings they don’t feel; images displaying the entire range of greys, grey as a wall, grey as a mouse, greyish grey; a staging that allows you to know in advance that the star will come back to be framed exactly along the curve of the big branch of the tree. When a film isn’t endowed with all these attributes, it risks to pass as a simple ‘documentary.’ It’s the label they wanted to stick on Georges Rouquier’s film Farrebique; his first feature-length film. Indeed, the film doesn’t have professional actors but real farmers, not invented farmers who have studied in a mirror how to behave like a farmer, with the right make-up to have just the right farmer’s complexion. The mise-en-scène is particularly delicate in this case because nothing is more difficult than to make non-professional actors perform while inculcating them with the idea that they shouldn’t ‘perform’ but rather simply repeat in front of the camera the normal actions of their everyday lives. Because the film is nothing but everyday life: no sophisticated dramas, exceptional positions or actor’s lines. Nothing but banality: the birth of a child, the death of an old man. One can reproach this film of not having the fierceness of the Russian films of the revolutionary era. Those were also ‘documentaries,’ but with Russian famers and at the time of a regime change. Here, it’s about French farmers only – all French farmers, as the film presents a synthesis of them – in the context of French small-town life. We cannot do anything about the fact that they don’t talk much, that their sentences in patois are ellipses, that they only suggest things… Much of the poetry emerging from this film emanates from what is not said, from the faces of those whose inner lives are only to be guessed. Only a director permeated with the life of farms and fields could have achieved this tour de force. Before becoming a linotyper, Rouquier spent his childhood amid farm activities and shared the farm’s regular sorrows, like the sun. He lived the everyday struggle with the soil, with cattle, with the elements, with man and his routines. He enjoyed all those contacts with nature and continually extracts its kind or malicious beauty, life or death. He coats the film with his memories, weaving his characters with them, magnificently drawn with almost nothing. You only have to see one of his actors for some seconds in order to feel this completely. Everything is direct. Nevertheless, they are actors because some of them play a character that is not theirs: the neighbour is not the neighbour and he never prevented the installation of electricity at Farrebique’s farm. The notary is a former insurance agent. But the grandfather is the real grandfather and all family members play their own role.
When Jean Vigo made Zéro de conduite – and I’m referring to Vigo not only because Rouquier seems to me the successor of one of our most authentic directors, but because Zéro de conduite contains Vigo’s youth in the similar way as Farrebique contains that of Rouquier, and also because Zéro de conduite had only very few professional actors as well – when Jean Vigo wanted to make his film, he looked for actors among the characters of his everyday life. When his landlord whom he owed several months of rent made a remark, Vigo told him: “You already spoke to me about this subject, but I see that we don’t understand each other; play in my film and we will be quits,” and so the landlord remarkably plays the role of superintendent.
If Vigo is cruel (towards persecutors because human cruelty made him suffer in his childhood), with Rouquier, whose childhood was also hard but who didn’t suffer from the same schooling, poetry is sparkling, dominating incessantly, erasing every aspect of protest; the least flattering characteristics of some of his characters are always tempered with kindness. But both have a healthy heart and spirit and defend life against scepticism.
The making of Farrebique required extreme perseverance because filming the rhythm of a year in the middle of nowhere in 1944 in Aveyron, without petrol, far away from civilisation, without the possibility of projecting the images in order to see the results, with only bits and pieces of film stock, was quite a venture. One day, someone should write a beautiful book about this undertaking.
And about Rouquier’s despair, having fixed an automatic machine in front of an apple tree in order to film its evolution image by image, only to find out that it was the only tree in the orchard that didn’t blossom that year.
Surprising ellipses keep passing by, like when the scene where the grandfather is exhausted during harvest time is succeeded by a scene where a body is brought to the farm, but it’s the body of the young man who fell from the haystack. There’s only one similar ellipse I know of: Hardy tells Laurel they’re going to be rich and we see them leaving a drugstore with all that is needed for brewing beer; in the next shot, they are entering prison.
And the spring sequence: horses are rubbing their steaming nostrils, a bull is jumping, a man picks up his scythe while eyeing a girl at the top of a ladder, an ear of wheat is growing, children are cuddling a suckling dog, a rose is budding while a cry resounds, a child is born. Since the concern for truth was driven to the point of even making a child for this film.
One could charge all this with impressionism; however, nothing is fabricated. Moreover, this whole film is folkloristic. What’s in the film had to be in the film because things happen like that. The moon is the real moon and not the sun filmed with a red filter, and you feel it. The sounds are not fabricated with disc recordings and licensed sound effect engineers who slap their thighs in order to imitate a galloping horse. Don’t tell me this precision is useless… In the early days of radio, when it was still called wireless telegraphy, a strange broadcast interrupted the excellent nocturnal orchestra because a micro transported to the woods finally captured the song of a nightingale; for fifteen minutes one heard nothing at all, then suddenly the wonderful roulade and at that moment one felt the woods. Obviously, some listeners found this a bad joke. Well, all the night sounds in Farrebique were recorded at night and you cannot be mistaken about that…
We need films for all tastes, and I’m not going to speak ill of literary films, adaptations of theatre plays or operettas, or chitchat films in general. But it’s good that from time to time a film is released that satisfies cinema lovers and doesn’t augment the confusion of genres nor reinforce the aestheticism in which the audience, that doesn’t want anything else, is wrapped – until the day it will be capable of comparing them. Farrebique is not a film without a future, it’s a leader. We can very well conceive of other subjects treated in a similar way, stylistically ever more precise and with dramatic or comical interventions if the subject really lends itself to it. Of course, I’m sparing you the critiques one could subject Farrebique to, as an enthusiast, to show one is acquainted with the trade… The battle for Farrebique is a new battle of Hernani,1 but in this case it’s the classicists who want to renew the cinematic tradition that got lost in a junkshop romanticism of verbose images or the global technical perfections of New York and Miami.
- 1The 1830 controversy surrounding the second performance of the play Hernani, a romantic drama by Victor Hugo, has been designated as the ‘battle of Hernani.’ ‘La bataille d’Hernani’ refers to the commotion and rumour in the theatre auditorium. The play almost caused a series of riots between adversaries: classicists versus romanticists, republicans versus royalists, liberals versus conformists. Hugo’s followers won in the theatre auditorium, but the press heavily criticised the play. Hernani is considered an important moment in the history of French theatre.
This text appeared in Les Etoiles, 24 September 1946.
Courtesy of the Archives Jean Painlevé
Milestones: Farrebique ou les quatre saisons takes place on Thursday 18 February 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.