The Case of Farrebique

If we were to choose one film to ponder over the debates on “realism” that occupied a large part of the 20th century arena of cinema, then let it be Farrebique (1946): Georges Rouquier’s magnificent chronicle of a year in the life of a farming family in Goutrens, Aveyron. André Bazin famously and vigorously defended the film against its detractors, who scornfully remarked that “cowpats are not photogenic” (Henri Jeanson) and that “it’s not even a documentary, rather a film which teaches us exactly nothing” (Jean Fayard), by declaring that the film’s singular accomplishment was to “deprive reality of all that has nothing to do with it, especially the parasitism of art”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, James Agee lauded Farrebique as one of the rare films that was able to keep the original promise of cinema alive: the promise to capture “the cruel radiance of what is.” After all, he claimed, the camera was the central instrument of his time, able to do what nothing else in the world could do: “To record unaltered reality; and it can be made to perceive, record, and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing and which are in great degree, inevitably and properly, lost to every other kind of artist except the camera artist.”

The controversy around the film – a new Battle of Hernani, as Jean Painlevé phrased it – brought into sharp focus the limitations and paradoxes of some of the denominators that have been used ad nauseam to divide and evaluate the cinematic landscape: documentary and fiction, authenticity and duplicity, asceticism and artfulness. These considerations, however, could not have been further away from Georges Rouquier’s mind when he set out to film the life on Farrebique, a farmstead that had been owned by his relatives for generations. Between 1944 and 1945, he spent a year with the family whose manner of living is governed by the seasons, by the dinnertime ritual of the grandfather cutting and handing out slices of bread, and the toilsome management of farm life on the eve of the introduction of electricity. The first shots in the film linger on the cracks slithering up the walls of the farmstead. “The house needs to be repaired,” says the grandfather, setting in motion the plot of the film: a series of daily comings, goings, and disputes, from the installation of electricity to the birth of a child, from quarrels about the farm’s inheritance to the cruel anticipation of death. All this, Rouquier films with a poetic sensibility and a sense of composition and rhythm that summons echoes with the work of Chaplin and Flaherty, Eisenstein and Dovjenko. No wonder Pedro Costa, when presenting the film at the Courtisane festival in Ghent, described the film as a form of science-fiction, as if the most day-to-day events crystallize and glisten on the screen like we’ve never seen them before; as if the actions and gestures that are all too often set aside as meritless prove to be, against all odds, all too worthy of fiction.

After making Farrebique, Rouquier directed a series of short films, documentaries, and features before finding a sideline as an actor. In 1983, he went back to the region in order to make a sequel, Biquefarre, with some of the original characters from the first film, shot some forty years earlier. Recently, seventy years after its first appearance, Farrebique was given a new lease of life, thanks to a beautiful restoration by Les documents cinématographiques. At a moment when contemporary cinema is increasingly challenging its borders and divisions and is eagerly exploring both its documenting and poetic forces, Farrebique’s splendour might be shining brighter than ever, as its achievement, to use Agee’s words, remains “wholly of our time.”

Stoffel Debuysere (Courtisane) and Gerard-Jan Claes (Sabzian)

Bjorn Gabriels, Sis Matthé and Veva Leye

Copy editing
Rebecca Jane Arthur, Sis Matthé and Trevor Perri

Conversation FR EN

“I already knew that you can’t just make a film overnight with people who aren’t actors. Especially when you want to make a feature film. And there I was, plunging into a spoken feature-length film. Some friends had told me, “Be careful!” I responded, “Damn it! Flaherty made Nanook, and he made Moana!” “Ah yes, okay, but that’s silent film! You, your peasants, when they open their mouths, you’ll see, it’ll be a catastrophe.” I hung on all the same. Of course, you can’t make them play Le Cid or Hamlet... You have to make them play something that’s closer to their hearts.”

Article FR EN

The film was barely finished, and the “Farrebique affair” began – the selection committee of the first Cannes Film Festival eliminated the film from the competition […]. “That Farrebique will not be going to Cannes is an outright scandal,” Maurice Bessy declared [...]. “Although some reservations could be made about the arbitrary conception of the subject,” wrote Georges Sadoul, “Farrebique clearly had its place at the festival, whereas the particularly incontinent logorrhea of A Lover’s Return should have been refused even a back seat.” But the screenwriter of this last film, Henri Jeanson, was the very committee member who fought for the rejection of Farrebique, although he denies that: “Farrebique was not presented to us for approval. I am, admittedly, one of those who find this film boring. I don’t consider cow dung to be photogenic material. I agree that I may be wrong, but I protest against those who claim in bad faith that Farrebique was rejected.”

Article NL FR EN
André Bazin 1947
Translated by

There’s no lack of so-called realist films, whether they are news stories or slices of life. There’s not even a lack of peasant films. Why is Farrebique the odd one out? That’s where, for me, Rouquier’s genius comes in, his egg of Columbus. He understood that verisimilitude had gradually taken the place of truth, that reality dissolves in realism. He painstakingly set out to discover it, to bring it back to light, to bring it up naked from the well of art.

Article NL EN

Whether or not this film is fully as great as it might have been, it is one of the finer works in the whole great line of rural art which extends backward through Van Gogh and Brueghel to the Georgics and to the Works and Days. It combines the cold deep-country harshness of Hesiod with a Vergilian tenderness and majesty; and its achievement is wholly of our time, through that reverence for unaltered reality which can be translated into a work of art only through the camera.