As far as "movie legends" go, Dominique Benicheti's Cousin Jules (1973) is tough to beat. Filmed over a five-year period, this music-free and almost entirely wordless 91-minute production offers an unyielding look at the satisfaction and monotony associated with a daily routine. Along with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn, Benicheti's ever-watchful camera focuses on his cousin Jules Guiteaux and Jules' wife, Felice as they approach 80 years of age and busily maintain their quaint home in the French countryside. Jules is a blacksmith by trade while Felice handles the domestic affairs, and the two seem to function almost effortlessly with only the bare minimum of vocal interactions. Five minutes pass before a single word is spoken, and then another ten minutes go by before a brief conversation occurs. All told, this opening paragraph contains more words than the entire documentary, yet the finished product speaks volumes.
Two years before Cousin Jules wrapped, Felice died at the age of 80. Jules pulls double duty after his wife's death, which is never shown and barely implied. In what would prove to be a strange coincidence, Benicheti died 40 years later in 2011 before the restoration of Cousin Jules was completed; during an accompanying featurette (likewise filmed over the course of several years), the director can be seen painstakingly examining the film negatives. In both cases, a death left work unfinished. Regardless, the extensive restoration was completed and Cousin Jules was resurrected after four decades of obscurity. Upon its initial release, it was publicly shown just two times before the director refused additional screenings, as art-house theaters at the time lacked the equipment to project this CinemaScope feature in its proper format. Though Benicheti directed dozens of documentaries, educational films, and more during his career, Cousin Jules remains his only theatrical feature. Not surprisingly, it's a polarizing experience that requires lots of patience.
Though classified by the director as "neither documentary nor fiction", most viewers will correctly assume it to be in the former camp. Long, unbroken shots are presented with little or no context, there's no Q&A with his subjects and, most importantly, the tireless labor of Jules and Felice is never explicitly interrupted. We almost forget there's a camera running, while the rustic nature of their modest surroundings gives the film an old-world atmosphere that's only broken by the appearance of an occasional light bulb, vehicle, and other modern conveniences. On paper, Cousin Jules might sounds as exciting as watching paint dry...but somehow, it's frequently as amazing as normal, everyday life can be. Cinema Guild presents this lost gem as separate DVD and Blu-ray packages; for now, the standard definition release offers a capable A/V presentation and two short but appropriate supplements. The Blu-ray review is forthcoming.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Cousin Jules was one of the first documentaries (again, if you can call it that) filmed in CinemaScope, and the DVD's 480p, 2.39:1 transfer makes the most of this naturally-lit production. Recently restored by the late director and a small team of friends and colleagues, there's a strong amount of detail on display here and a pleasing amount of natural film grain to boot. Although the separate Blu-ray undoubtedly offers richer visuals, this is still impressive work only hindered slightly by a mild amount of brightness boosting and the occasional noise that comes with it. Colors are generally muted but can hardly be considered "dull" and, like most other aspects of this presentation, seen to represent the director's specific intent. Overall, there's very little to complain about, but I'm still eager to see what the Blu-ray will offer.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p resolution.
Likewise, the Dolby Digital 2.0 track is impressive even without regularly being put to the test. In an accompanying featurette, director Dominique Benicheti explains his careful placement of both microphones to simulate the distance between ears, which results in a purely natural experience that stands out without calling attention to itself. From the satisfying ping of Jules' hammer to the rigorous grinding of coffee beans, there are plenty of everyday sensory delights for anyone who appreciates such things. As mentioned earlier, dialogue is extremely limited and certainly not a focal point here, but optional English subtitles have been included during the film and extras for audio and text translation.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the static, minimalist menu interface offers smooth navigation and a refreshing lack of pre-show warnings. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase; also included is a brief but fascinating printed Essay
by Film Comment
contributor and historian Haden Guest. The DVD itself appears to be unlocked for region-free playback.
Though it runs less than 12 minutes, the included Restoration Featurette
is well worth a look. It's hosted by director Dominique Benicheti who, like his cousin's wife in the main feature, died in the middle of work and the project was completed without him. Benicheti goes into detail about the painstaking, methodical process used to refurbish his labor of love, from cleaning the original negative to restoring the stereo soundtrack. Some details may go over the heads of those unfamiliar with film processing (myself included), but this is a fantastic (if not all too brief) supplement and, in hindsight, a perfect companion piece to the film itself. Also here is re-release Theatrical Trailer
, which has also been sourced from restored footage and includes a few interesting details about the film's production and history.
Both supplements include optional English subtitles for translation purposes only. One can only imagine the possibility of more director input on additional extras had Dominique Benicheti not died in 2011. A full audio commentary, interview or Q&A would've certainly been welcome, as his technical knowledge and affection for the source material are obvious.
Without question, on paper a film like Cousin Jules simply shouldn't work. But it does, assuming you're at a point in life where reflecting on simpler times sounds appealing. There's a certain satisfaction in the sensory appeal that Cousin Jules provides, even if its hypnotic atmosphere and complete lack of narrative occasionally drift into monotony. Either way, the film's unique but fundamental appeal is strengthened by its "legend" and the director's untimely 2011 death, not to mention the long-overdue DVD and Blu-ray releases by Cinema Guild. This standard definition package serves up a solid A/V presentation and one brief but fascinating bonus feature. Those on the fence are strongly encouraged to rent this DVD first, but there's certainly enough here to make Cousin Jules worth owning. Mildly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.