Peasants These Days
Farrebique by George Rouquier
Here, at last, is Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique. The film was completed early last summer and presented to the Cannes selection committee. It was “refused” unanimously, except for two votes, those of Jeander and Charensol.1 But Farrebique was screened outside the festival, received the Prix de la critique internationale [the FIPRESCI Prize] in Cannes, and then, at the end of the year, the Grand prix du cinéma.
Farrebique is the name of a farm near Rodez, and the film chronicles the lives of its inhabitants over four seasons. No plot, dialogue, actors or sets, in the sense that these words have on the stage. Georges Rouquier turns his back to the Méliès tradition, that great and beautiful tradition of theatrical cinema, and claims, like Louis Lumière, “to depict nature from life”.
It’s hard to describe this exceptionally new, fresh film because it has no plot. No need here to look for the virtuosity of a screenwriter-cum-ballet master, or for dialogues devised by a scriptwriter acting as a champion of intellectual jousting. But we do find the unaffected course of natural or traditional events that form the “eternal” basis of peasant life: the vigil; going to mass and visiting the pub on Sundays; leaving for school; the explosion of spring, the season of flowers and love; the division of land between the parents, in the presence of the notary; the death of the grandfather and his burial...
All this is told in Rouquier’s typical style, which is that of honest simplicity. Better than any pathos might do, this good-natured tone supports the two or three moments of great lyrical rapture in Farrebique. Such as the pantheistic spring, when we see the lively and fragrant sexuality of flowers opening up, the fermentations of the earth and the ponds bubbling, while the first romantic dates are set up near the hawthorns...
The funeral of the grandfather stands any comparison with the best pieces of cinema, and it evokes Dovzhenko’s unforgettable peasant epic Zemlya [Earth]. You might say that the farm we see disappear behind the coffin or the brambles that cling to the wheels of the hearse are easy symbols. But who can forget the place where the cart track meets the main road, with its electricity pylon ereted like a landmark of destiny. This image is in its place, as a rare or renewed word may be in the phrase of a great poet.
The importance of Rouquier’s work is not that it renovates the documentary, but that it goes beyond it, and that it joins a new wave of European avant-garde, which recently manifested itself in Lindtberg’s La dernière chance, La bataille du rail by René Clement and above all Paisà by Rossellini. This common trend is all the more remarkable since each of these four great directors could not have been influenced by the work of any of the other three, as they didn’t know them yet.
What characterizes this new European school, which might be called the realist school, is its reaction against the excesses that have precipitated Hollywood towards its current decline, and which today threaten an entire part of French cinema. Against the ruinous mechanisms with which hyperqualified specialists fabricate and polish each part, “neo-realists” oppose films made without money or means, but which still have a sense of life and truth. Rather than concerted fabrication, they prefer the sound choice of reality, which is one of the most refined forms of art.
Listen, for example, to the dialogues in Farrebique. They are not the work of a licensed dialogue writer, which Mr. Henri Jeanson2 considered to be an offense to his profession and deemed worthy of punishment by a definitive elimination from Cannes. This does not prevent the dialogue written by Rouquier from being the most original and the best of the year. At least for those who consider words are made to be said by those who pronounce them, and not taken up in the work of Labiche or Scribe, let alone in the Vermot Almanac.3 All the sentences of Farrebique were first uttered in conversations, on the farm, before the authors repeated them in the film. And that determines their value. Here too, Rouquier has succeeded to make art by choosing the essence. To show the truth, Rouquier has made Farrebique a film full of grandeur and emotion, the portrait of a family of small farm owners. But we regret that a work so profoundly innovative in its aesthetics and its creative processes doesn’t demonstrate the same qualities when it comes to the social life of the countryside. I agree with everything that is said in Farrebique, but I regret certain silences, certain omissions.
Whatever the intentions and difficulties Georges Rouquier may have had, Farrebique (the film he made, not the one he perhaps wanted to make) is above all a hymn to the “eternal” peasant, to the ever-identical nature, for centuries on end.
In this peasant film, the thunderstorm is especially worth seeing because of the troubled beauty of its light, without worrying about the damage it could do to the crops. Farrebique has meadows, fields of wheat and a vineyard. But what is made with their products? Do the farmers sell milk or cheese? Do they care about the price the butcher or the horse dealer may give for a pig or a foal? Watching Farrebique, spectators would find it difficult to answer these questions, whereas anyone would be informed about them after only an hour of listening to conversations in a village pub. We see here almost nothing but a “family unit”, cut off from the rest of the people and the nation. Is it a deliberate intention to prefer the pub scene over a market scene? And the death of the grandfather over the death of the cow? If scenes such as those two were tackled, it would have been impossible to conceal the links that unite a farm and the land. In any case, we would like to see our director, with the support of the unions for example, deal with a subject matter that has been with him for a long time: the life of a working-class family in Paris, where it is impossible to dream of an oasis of tranquillity.
If it was Georges Rouquier’s intent to prove that the peasant is “eternal”, that the Norman cattle-raiser is identical to the Alsatian farmer, the tractor driver of Manitoba to the olive picker of ancient Greece or to the rice eater of China in the Middle Ages, his film would be a failure. Because, despite obvious omissions, the peasants of Farrebique aren’t of all ages; they are farmers and landowners in Aveyron in 1946. That is why this film is a great work of art. After all, the eternal can only be reached through the present: the best chance to stand the test of time is to radically be a child of your time.
- 1Jeander was the pseudonym of Jean Derobe (1909-1985), editor of the cinema section for, among others, Libération, co-creator in 1946 of the National Union of Journalists and co-founder of the first Cinéma d’Art et d’Essais in the 1950s. The film, literature and arts critic Georges Charensol (1899-1995) worked among others for Les Nouvelles littéraires, where he was responsible for the cinema section. [editor’s note]
- 2The writer and journalist Henri Jeanson (1900-1970) was known as a screenwriter and dialogue writer, among others for Pépé le Moko and Hôtel du Nord. [editor’s note]
- 3Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) and Eugène Labiche (1815-1888) were authors of the vaudeville theater. The Almanac Vermot was a popular calendar containing all kinds of proverbs, quotes and jokes. [editor’s note]
This text was published in Les Lettres françaises 148 on 21 March 1947.
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.