Yvette, Bon Dieu!

How to Keep 'Em Down on the Ferme

July 1, 2008By Paris UpdateFilm

Just a couple of hours from Paris by car, on a perfectly flat expanse of land in the Touraine, a complex of farm buildings like many others throughout France sits by the side of a quiet country lane. Someone in a passing car might hear a dog barking or a man shouting “Yvette, Bon Dieu!” (the phrase that gives this film its name), but otherwise no one would suspect what was going on beyond the barrier formed by the buildings.

Farming. But not just any farming, not the kind of industrialized farming that takes place all over France today, but farming as it has been practiced by smallholders since time immemorial. This slice of a vanishing lifestyle will certainly fascinate the French, who still have a deep-rooted attachment to their terroir and a sentimental affection for les paysans.

The center of it all – and of this documentary by Sylvestre Chatenay – is Yvette. For an hour and a half we watch as Yvette milks the cows and goats, skins the rabbits, feeds the pigs, births a goat, makes sausages, crushes wine grapes by stomping on them and much, much more. And all the while, she is also taking care of her 100-year-old mother, who is perfectly compos mentis, with a sparkle of wit and intelligence in her eyes, but is confined to a wheelchair. In one scene, Yvette wheels her out to the cherry orchard and has her picking fruit. In another touching scene, the mayor and some friends and neighbors gather in a shed to fete the mother’s 100th birthday (it seems indescribably sad that they use plastic cups for the champagne on such an auspicious occasion).

Amazingly, although Yvette is no spring chicken herself (she was 62 when the film was made), she never looks tired (although I felt exhausted just watching her) and never complains. She always seems good-natured, accepting and pragmatic (asked how she manages, she just says, “C’est le travail”) and only rarely lets emotion show through. Yvette’s mother dies sometime after the birthday celebration, but Yvette has no time to mourn. She goes right back to work – the animals have to be fed and milked, etc. – but one day the filmmaker catches her crying. “She left us too soon,” she says.

When asked if she would rather have done something else with her life, she says, “What? Work in a factory?” She and her two brothers, who work with her on the farm but are given less attention in the documentary, never married. When asked about this, Yvette changes the subject. Her affection seems reserved for the farm’s cats and dogs, even though they have their work to do as well (respectively, catching mice and herding animals).

Chatenay, the filmmaker, keeps a low profile throughout the film. Although we occasionally hear him asking Yvette and her brothers questions, we never see him. Sometimes we wish his questions were more probing, because we want to understand the motivations of these people, but it would seem that a certain discretion and reticence on both sides prevented the kind of psychological revelation we have come to expect from documentaries.

Yvette remains dignified throughout and maintains another mystery that Chatenay was unable to penetrate: What’s with the hair? Yvette has a long, flat, rectangular mass of matted hair that she keeps hidden most of the time under a scarf. It obviously has some kind of importance for her, but we will never know what it is. Maybe it’s her way of saying, “I may have worked like a dog all my life and never married, but this is what makes me different.” You go, girl.


What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.