Moving without being sentimental, intimately probing without being intrusive, elegiac without being downcast, Raymond Depardon’s Modern Life is a bittersweet documentary about the twilight of farming in the south-central region of Cevennes in France. Marking the inevitability of change, it documents the dwindling number of farmers and the emptying of farming villages. Many things are hastening the exit of this way of life: the low pension for farmers, the high land taxes, the poor regard by the younger generations for farming. Farming is no picnic, as the film’s earnest subjects will attest. As ill-advised dilettantes find out.
Modern Life represents the final piece in a trilogy called Country Profiles. Here Depardon takes to the roads of Cevennes on a car, and goes from one village to another, as one season unfolds to the next. The roads seem to hint of idyllic spaces, but the lure proves to be spectral. As Depardon’s voice marks the time and place, his accustomed presence notes the toll of many years, the passing of some of the farmers, how the villages are diminishing into ghostly hamlets. We get impressions of what goes on in the farms, the milking of cows, the grazing of sheep, but Depardon is more interested in the dynamics of relationships, the interiors of his chosen farmers.
Many of Depardon’s subjects are elderly men and women, and it is easy to see that some of their ideas are stubbornly out of date. It is an old culture that speaks a different language. All but disdainfully, Marcel Privat, an 80 year old man, for instance, resents his enterprising niece-in-law, Cecille, for her alleged lack of respect and her attempts to wrest control of the ancestral farm. A casualty of this old world is Daniel Jean Roy who must bear the brunt among six siblings of running the family farm, although he is quietly vocal about his displeasure with it. There is a moment here where Depardon tries to poke and probe the reservoirs of resentment, but dredges up, instead, silent but dignified despair.
Depardon’s methods mix pure observation and dialogue to capture the rhythms of country life. Sometimes he just allows the cameras to run, capturing without words the reticence of his subjects, their hard and leathery faces. Here he achieves a kind of painterly portrait, his subject worn yet all but defiant of a changing world. It often happens that his subject is hard of hearing and he must repeat himself almost with a shout. Sometimes he hovers near the frame, sometimes we can see him partake of coffee and biscuits at the edges, while he asks the questions. There are also instances when he deliberately tells us, through voice-over narration, that he is playing off subjects against each other as though to create contrasts or even drama. This almost informal way of documentary reminds us of the films of Jean Rouch, but Depardon is less ethnographic, less obtrusively experimental.
Modern Life is a finely pitched elegy that sees out a way of life, while around it a world speeds onward, transformed. The hamlets are all but empty, the inhabitants now gone away for better prospects, and an easier way of life. As for those who cling on, instead of bitterness, however, we hear the shimmering and pulsing of silence. This is precisely the way of life they are inured to. Nature and hardscrabble life have instilled in them the virtue of stoicism. As one farmer makes plain, however, farming…”is not just a job, it takes passion!” Passion is what modern life is missing, a world that is so unduly privileged, insulated, facile.