Dominique Benicheti, Cousin Jules, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Jules Guiteaux.

DOMINIQUE BENICHETI’S 1973 Cousin Jules might have been a documentary game-changer, had it not gone virtually unseen for forty years. In 1968, Benicheti began shooting a portrait of his seventy-seven-year-old distant relative Jules Guiteaux, a blacksmith who lived with his wife of the same age on a small farm in rural France. Barely out of film school in Paris, but already committed to the large-format film technology with which, along with 3-D, he would work for his entire career, Benicheti made Cousin Jules in 35-mm Cinemascope with a stereophonic sound track composed entirely of concrete, synchronously recorded audio.

Given that 1968 was a moment when the 16-mm handheld “direct” or “vérité” style was the signature of serious documentary, the choice was daring. In an interview with Film Quarterly’s Lee Atwell in 1975, after Cousin Jules had won praise in festivals from Moscow to Los Angeles’s Filmex, Benicheti said that using ’scope was his only way of competing with television (the same logic Hollywood had used in the 1950s). And why shouldn’t an artisanal lifestyle on the verge of extinction, practiced unquestioningly by two people for their entire adult lives, be rendered in a scale comparable to the fictional Lawrence of Arabia? Comprising exquisitely composed, almost entirely static shots of fairly long duration, Cousin Jules gives one time to mull over such questions as well as to contemplate what is inside the frame and what is left unseen and unspoken. Which is to say that Benicheti, in collaboration with his cinematographer Pierre William Glenn (a French New Wave stalwart), produced images at once fragile and monumental—the visually expressive correlative of his taciturn, hardworking subjects and the Burgundy countryside where they lived.

Cousin Jules opens in darkness with the sound of a rooster crowing. Soon we see a man’s feet encased in worn clogs, then hands swinging by the sides of a worn jacket, and finally a weather-beaten, sharply boned face. Cousin Jules is on his way from the house to the large shed that contains his anvil, grindstone, and furnace. A barely glimpsed group of passersby hails him from the road beyond the yard. It is one of three occasions in the film, which was shot over five years, when we see him interact with anyone besides Félicie, whom he married when they were both twenty-two years old.

Who knows what instructions Benicheti gave Jules and Félicie? Most likely he told them to behave as they ordinarily did and to try not to look directly at him or at the camera. But at one point, we see Jules, who is standing at the edge of the wide-angled frame, glance directly at the lens, and the mischief in his eyes tells us something about his character’s independence that we might not have otherwise understood. This is a man who enjoys putting rules to the test.

In sustained sequences, Benicheti shows Jules at work, heating the iron rods he bends and shapes on his anvil (the clang of the hammer reverberating over the sound of the birds and insects outside). Farming tools, kitchen wares, and machine replacement parts hang on the wall of the shed. One wonders how much demand there is for these handmade implements. We also see Félicie feeding the chickens, drawing water from the well, peeling potatoes. The two come together for a meal—potatoes mashed with bread and a bit of meat, accompanied by a glass of wine. “It’s good,” says Jules. And a bit later, “Why aren’t you eating?” “Too hot,” Félicie replies. I am immediately worried. Felicity is stouter than Jules, but she also seems frailer than her husband, who has the erect spine of a man in his fifties.

Dominique Benicheti, Cousin Jules, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Félicie Guiteaux.

It turns out my concern is founded. Midway through the film we see Jules alone in a graveyard, digging a fresh plot. He could have taken on a part-time job, I reason, hoping against hope. But no, in the following scenes, Jules is shown doing the tasks that once were Félicie’s: feeding the chickens, making the bed, preparing the meals and the coffee which he now takes alone, while reading a newspaper. Is it the local pennysaver? Does it mention the political unrest of 1968 and after? We never know and what’s more, Jules’s way of life is so distant from that of the contemporary unionized French working class that it’s doubtful he would have any reason to care.

Jules also seems to have stopped working at his blacksmith trade. We see him carting firewood with the assistance of a neighbor and also buying the provisions the farm doesn’t produce—coffee, oranges, bread, butter—from a grocery van, the only scene where money is exchanged. In the final moments, we see him eating at the kitchen table. At first, the camera is with him inside the house; then suddenly it is outside in the yard, looking at him through the window, the glow of the kitchen lamp the only illumination, a dog barking in the distance the only sound. A last look at the now disused shed, its walls still lined with Jules’s handiwork, and the film is over. Cousin Jules is history.

The film would fall into the ethnographic genre of documentary, except that there is no ethnographic film which delivers images of comparable beauty. The adjective “painterly” is often applied to movies, but Cousin Jules earns it with every shot. Like its subjects, the film is invested in the traditions of late nineteenth-century France, represented in the realism of Millet and Corot at the moment that it gave way to the lyricism of Monet and the early Impressionists. Outside the wide doorway of Jules’s smoky workshop is the garden—lushly green and purple in the soft, misty light of summer mornings, yellow and brown under the snow-filled winter skies. (How difficult it must have been to balance the dark interior with the bright exterior with those slow, wide-angle lenses.) If not for these images and the landscape shots of fields that seem to stretch to the horizon, we might read the film—as some critics did at its release—as taking place within a single day or week. But the earth turns, the seasons come and go, and the changes in the light, the comings and goings of things that fly and crawl, the movements of cats and dogs toward the warmth of the fire in winter and the heat of the sun in summer, seem to have little effect on Jules and Félicie’s daily routine. They mark their time in the natural world to which they are connected in a way that we who watch the film probably do not. If nothing else, Cousin Jules might affect the way in which you see and hear—at least for as long as the film is on the screen.

After Cousin Jules played the international festival circuit in 1973–74, it disappeared. Benicheti insisted that the film be screened in ’scope with stereo sound, and few art theaters or film clubs were equipped to do that. When the director died suddenly in 2011, he was working on restoring the original picture and sound track, which were in danger of disintegrating. Arane-Gulliver Labs, where Benicheti was working on the film, completed an exceptionally delicate and rich visual and sonic restoration in 2K digital, which Cinema Guild is distributing. Needless to say, try to see it on the big screen.

Amy Taubin

Cousin Jules plays at Film Forum through December 10.