March 13, 1948
Farrebique was made on a farm in southern France by Georges Rouquier, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, left home and became a linotyper, and ultimately got into movie-making because he couldn’t keep away from it. Rouquier had made only one short film before this, a documentary about the making of wine vats. Both the subject of the new film and the particular kind of movie treatment happen to be obsessions of mine; so I cannot hope that many other people will be as deeply excited and satisfied by this film as I am. On the other hand, it is clear to me that because of the same obsessions I would be more merciless toward any mismanagements and betrayals, of the subject or in the treatment, than most people would.
Rouquier’s idea is simply to make a record of the work and living of a single farm family, and of the farm itself, and of the surrounding countryside, through one year. I cannot imagine a better subject, or one that is as a rule more degenerately perceived and presented. In a sense, all that can be said of Rouquier’s treatment of it is that it is right. That means among other things the following:
He realizes that, scrupulously handled, the camera can do what nothing else in the world can do: can record unaltered reality; and can be made also 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. He is utterly faithful to this realization; and it is clear in nearly every shot that he is infinitely more than a mere documentor, that his poetic intelligence is profound, pure, and vigorous; and it is clear many times over that he has the makings, and now and then the achievement, of a major poet. There is not an invented person or thing in the picture, and the reenactments, and invented incidents, are perfect examples of the discipline under these difficult circumstances. One could watch the people alone, indefinitely long, for the inference of his handling of them, to realize that moral clearness and probity are indispensable to work of this kind, and to realize with fuller contempt than ever before how consistently in our time so-called simple people, fictional and nonfictional, are consciously and unconsciously insulted and betrayed by artists and by audiences: it seems as if the man is hardly alive, any more, who is fit to look another man in the eye. But this man is; and this is the finest and strongest record of actual people that I have seen.
Rouquier’s sense of the discretion and power of plot and incident, such as they are, is just as sure and as rare. Even more remarkable is his ability with all the small casual scraps of existence which are neither plot nor incident nor even descriptive, nor revealing of mood or character, but are merely themselves, and of the essence of being. He never imposes poetry or rhetoric or special significance upon these scraps, and they are never left half-dead and helpless, as mere shots-for-shots’-sake: they are incredibly hard stuff to organize, but he has so ordered them that they are fully and euphoniously articulate in their own perfect language. He knows as well as any artist I can think of the power and the beauty there can be in absolute plainness: his record, for instance, of the differing faces of three men and two women as they stand in their home for night prayer; or the mere sequence of bedding down the cows. Much of the picture, and much of the finest of it, has this complete plainness; but raised against this ground bass Rouquier’s sense of device and metaphor is equally bold and pure. He develops a wonderful communication of the rooted past, the flowering present, and the ungerminated future in about three minutes during which the Grandfather tells the children the history of the farm and family, while the camera examines snapshots and mementos which are like relics from a primitive grave. He does a beautiful thing in showing the dreams of the old man, his son, his son’s wife, wishes as touching and naïve as those of a child: then hovers the dreamless face of the Grandmother. His use of analogy and metaphor is Homeric in simplicity and force: the terrifying blooming of a sped flower, as an image of childbirth; the sound of an ax and of a falling tree as the camera watches a man’s pulse die. He uses stop-motion as I have always wanted to use it; very plainly, to show the motions of darkness and light and shadow; and with complete freedom and daring, in his orgiastic sequence on spring, to show the jubilant rending and pouring upward and blossoming of the world. This sequence is as prescient and as primordially exciting as the Pervigilium Veneris. He also dares to add to it – almost whispered, as it should be – a poem of his own; and so well as I could hear, it is an extremely good poem. I’m no sure the picture wouldn’t be still better without it; yet, it adds a quality and full dimension of its own, and in principle I am for it. In one sense this film is a kind of Bible which expounds not only the grave kinds of discipline necessary to such work but also the kinds, degrees, and tremendous reaches of liberty and adventure which obedience to these kinds of discipline makes possible.
Bosley Crowther of the Times has written that Farrebique is “lacking in strong dramatic punch… not even a plain folk triangle,” and that ys will have to depend for support upon “the loyal, the very loyal.” I don’t feel that Mr. Crowther means ill by the film – though there is a certain patronizing air toward those who are poky and arty enough to admire it – and I thoroughly disenjoy derogation by name; but when a great work of art is dismissed so casually as not so good as the “the classic French film, Harvest” (!), I find that I am loyal, very loyal. By no means all the great poetry in the world, especially the kind which is uniquely possible to moving pictures, is or can stand to be dramatic; and this picture is not for cultists, but for those who have eyes capable of seeing what is before them, and minds and hearts capable of caring for what they see. Others have complained that the film is repetitious. It is, exactly in the sense that the imitation and counterpoint and recurrence in a Mozart symphony are repetitious, and somewhere near as satisfyingly.
Rouquier’s film is so far above and beyond the fat-headed “instructiveness” of most nonfiction films that I wish he had shown that even “instructive” material can transcend its kind. Even within his scheme as I understand it one should make clear just what the family lives on and just how it gets its living: but we don’t know for sure, here, what is for subsistence and what goes to market. I wish also that there was a fuller record of the undomesticated natural year, as distinct from the farm; I learn that Rouquier wished so too, tried very hard for it, and could not get enough what he was after – exactly the right shots of a fox, the flight of a crow, and so on. On “inanimate” nature and the differing lights of weathers and seasons, however, he was as right as it is imaginable to be. Whatever devices may have been used to help out of the camera, they are used legitimately, that is, invisibly, and in order that the film may accept the exact light the world gives it; and in this the film is full of lovely achievements: subdued autumnal light in which the whole world is as scratchily distinct as trillions of little briars; the veiled shining of spring; the supernal light beneath impounded thunder; the holy light of snow. I would suppose, but am not sure, that with infra-red, or through stop-motion, luminous night images might have been had, of the words and the open land, deep in the darkness – or throughout one night, condensed into a minute; of the luminousness of fallen snow in still, open woods, during a cloudy night; of storming snow in the dark; of the stars. If these things were possible, I am very sorry not to see them here: sorriest, I guess, not to see what would have come of two shots: the stop-motion camera trained throughout one night upon the Pole Star, and upon the zenith on a moonless and starry night; so that in either case the whole sky turns, and bit by bit obliterates with morning. I think it is probable, too, that beautifully as the shots are articulated, and strong and rich as they are in poetry, they are seldom ordered into the definitive, unforgettable eloquence of the highest poetry which might have been made out of the subject. But it will take a good many seeings before I can be sure of that. I am sure already, however, of one thing. 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.
I had to choose between writing of this film, which indicated that the greatness of moving pictures is by no means over, and writing of the death and tragic life of Sergei Eisenstein, in whom so many of the greatest possibilities conceivable in the medium were for a long while imprisoned and tormented, and now lie buried. I ultimately chose the former, not in any sentimental favoring of life over death, but because Eisenstein was a great hero to me, and I found that I could not hope to speak of him as I wished to, in a thousand words or so. I would be thankful, for his sake, that his life is over; but since for years on end, under unspeakable provocation, he successfully resisted suicide and martyrdom and madness in order to serve his genius as best he still could, he cannot be congratulated, with a whole heart, upon an escape he never sought.
This text originally appeared in The Nation on March 13, 1948.
Copyright © The James Agee Trust, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.