Raymond Depardon is justly celebrated for the range of his work, covering photojournalism, photography, feature films and, with greatest success most recently, documentaries. His new documentary, ironically titled La Vie Moderne (Modern Life), focuses on a number of farms in different areas of France and follows the lives of the farmers, both old and young, who struggle to eke out an existence in a world that seems to be less and less accommodating to old-fashioned ways of farming.
French directors have excelled in recent years in producing charming documentaries on slices of French life: think of Nicolas Philibert’s 2002 portrait of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, Être et Avoir, or Laurent Cantet’s quasi-documentary Entre les Murs (The Class), winner of this year’s coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, or Depardon’s own beautifully judged (pun intended) 10e Chambre (2004), set in a Paris courtroom. My hopes for La Vie Moderne were therefore understandably high.
On many levels, Depardon has wonderful material to work with, such as the two unmarried octogenarian brothers who resent the fact that their nephew, who works with them, has married a woman from the north, or the son who feels obliged to carry on his parents’ work on the farm even though he hates everything about it.
Visually, as one would expect, given Depardon’s photographic background, the film is exemplary. We gain a vivid insight into both the beauty and the harshness of the land. And the faces of the farmers and their families, as they sit mostly in their kitchens while being interviewed by Depardon, are filmed with extraordinary detail.
Why, then, was I so disappointed with La Vie Moderne?
First of all, unlike Être et Avoir or 10e Chambre, which offered a sense of narrative progression, this documentary darts between different people in different places at different times and has a minimal sense of forward movement. As a result, one feels somewhat detached from Depardon’s human (and animal) subjects.
Secondly, the beauty and depth of the filmed faces, so often entirely static, made me think that a book of photographs would have allowed for greater profundity, especially since the people shown in this documentary are, to be frank, not very interesting. When Depardon asks his often banal questions (how much more effective 10e Chambre was for not having any spoken commentary!), they have very little to say for themselves. Of course, one could argue that their inability to articulate their thoughts is touching, but I would far rather guess at the struggles that lie behind lined faces in a photograph than listen to their inadequate responses.
The failure of Depardon’s interviewing technique is most starkly shown in one moment during an encounter with one of the octogenarian brothers, whose deafness means that Depardon has to repeat every one of his trite questions more loudly. Depardon asks the old man how he feels about the fact that it is raining outside: the camera then explores the farmer’s face as he pauses and seems to reflect sadly on his life. We only realize several moments later that in fact he hasn’t even heard the question.Favorite