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by Harlan Kennedy


Or, How Raymond Depardon’s LA VIE MODERNE and Terence Davies’s OF TIME AND THE CITY Stole into the Cannes Film Festival to Bring Greatness While No One Was Looking


Change and decay. Memory and transfiguration. You wait all decade for a documentary with a powerful personal signature and a Proustian resonance – for a great  film d’auteur about time’s tectonic influence on our lives and emotions – and then two arrive together.

For many of us Cannes 2008 was the Ray and Terry Show. Raymond Depardon and Terence Davies gave us two films, OF TIME AND THE CITY and LA VIE MODERNE, which came and went in a blur of wonder, like celestial omnibuses or travelling circuses, passing through town at dead of night. Shown on the non-competitive fringe, the films seemed shy, even embarrassed by their own riches.

Where flashier filmmakers perform their routines in the glare of the spotlight, Terry and Ray tend to stand in the wings waiting to be called. They have both been to Heaven and back in their lives and possibly had a glimpse of Hell. They have seen more than many of us have or ever will. Yet they aren’t among the first to volunteer  their stories, tricks or wisdoms. You pretty much have to go up to them and ask them.    

Terence Davies is the Liverpool-born Englishman who made affective memory his forte – and British cinema’s fortissimo in the late 1980s – with DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES and THE LONG DAY CLOSES. Raymond Depardon is the veteran French documentarist whose best films (LA CAPTIVE DU DESERT, DELITS FLAGRANTS) have become part of European movie legend.

Before OF TIME AND THE CITY, Terry had made two films in sixteen years. His two-part song about his Liverpool boyhood seemed an act impossible to follow: a notion reinforced by the fitful artistry he brought to his encore, another two-part opus, this time more fortuitous in its pairing and unconvincingly dressed in American mores. THE NEON BIBLE (1996) and THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (2000) came, were seen, and failed to conquer.

In another part of the hemisphere, Ray was treading his wheel of cyclical subjects, from farming life (two films in the series PROFILS PAYSANS, with a promised third to come) to urban justice (10E CHAMBRE, or TENTH DISTRICT COURT). His films held a pocket mirror to modern Europe. But the mass of moviegoers, even in France, looked the other way, or preferred the more flattering pier-glass reflections they got from feature films. They always said yes to Depardieu. To Depardon, apart from critics and cultists, they tended to say, “Some other time” or “We’ll catch you on DVD.”

Perfection is a hard thing to get people enthused about. And myopic viewers might use another P-word – parochial – about these two new films. But each uses the particular as a conduit to the universal. OF TIME AND THE CITY is about the tragedy of growing up; about how the individual and the community, after what is or seems a symbiotic beginning, grow at different speeds and in different directions. Liverpool in Davies’s film was never beautiful. But in the middle of the last century it had a rich togetherness, partly fostered by the war, and a lingering grandeur in its Victorian architecture, its museums and galleries, its Catholic churchism.

Davies doesn’t buy into each of these. Religious disillusionment came early. After “years wasted in useless prayer (it’s all a lie)”, Davies became a “born again atheist – thank God.” He understood his own talent for righteous anger. The film exuberantly pillories the British monarchy – “the Betty Windsor Show” – while demanding we recognize Britain’s true valuable heritage. Its countryside, its art, its buildings, its folk culture, its literature. The film’s magnificent voice-over, delivered by Davies himself, flings lines of verse at us, from Shelley to Auden, while scarcely diminishing in poetic resonance even when the words are by the director. He can conjure an epoch with a glowing phrase. “Radios as small and brown as Hovis.” “Football like life was in black and white.”

Edited like a dream – or in his descant on the 1960s scourge of tower-block architecture a nightmare – OF TIME AND THE CITY can also be ferociously comical. Davies knows each Achilles heel in the British character and sometimes prefers to treat it as a funnybone. He remembers the disarray of a summer sports day in his cold northern school: “people collapsing from heatstroke because the temperature rose a couple of points above freezing.” Davies’s voice, and his visuals, never rise above mezzo forte, yet an hour in we feel the almost biblical beat of this film. Cracking his melancholy northern jokes he is like an Old Testament Alan Bennett. Turning serious, and widening the vista for his panoramas of national beauty or decay, he is a Job with a touch of the poet.

That describes, almost to a man (there are few women), the people in front of the camera in Raymond Depardon’s LA VIE MODERNE. This is the promised third part of the director’s PROFILS PAYSANS series of rural docu-frescoes. He has met some of these farmers and households before. But they were never filmed with this intensity of attention and affection, this Rembrandt-like luminosity of portraiture.

The film is a valediction forbidding mourning. The old agricultural life is almost gone – no one disputes that – yet there is no use in weeping. In remotest France, where they speak dialects as strange and near-extinct as Sanskrit, the earth used to be tilled and harvested and threshed by single codgers or single families, often as solitary as prairie folk in the Old West.

Here are two elderly brothers in southern France who never married and who look with murderous scorn on their farm-inheriting nephew and his bride imported from – pheughh! –  Calais. The two oldies have never even deigned to step inside the couple’s cottage, which the brothers bought for them. (“She called me dirty, I’ll never take that”).

Here is a 63-year-old farmer living alone, as gnarled as an oak tree and with hair as long as Richard III’s, who barely even answers Depardon’s questions as he, the farmer, gazes at the time-warped pomp of some esoteric Catholic church ceremony on black-and-white TV. (He’s Protestant!)

These people would rather die than reveal a thought or feeling. Which makes all the greater the film’s feat in conveying this world – its prejudices, its passions (for the old turnings of earth and time), its bereavement pangs, its jealous solitariness. These men look like great paintings as they sit there, saying nothing with their mouths, yet saying everything with the glitter of their eyes, the set of their jaws, or even the deceptively at-ease posture of the head leaning on the elbow-raised hand: a posture that seems to be one of repose but which also says, “I am very like a Van Gogh painting and I am about as relaxed as that suggests.”

Near the end, the grimmest farmer of all, sitting or half-reclining in a field, lets slip, amid another long silence patiently respected by the filmmaker, a single, rolling, unrecalled tear. “C’est la fin” he mutters. He feels no need to explain what is at an end. We know: the old countryside that is passing from family farming to factory farming. No longer, in a loving and near-conjugal relationship, will the individual peasant, single or married, solitary or familial, plough and inseminate the land to bear or beget new life. Bureaucracy and machines will handle it.

Just as Terence Davies be-weeps the tide of time, that treats tradition, community and heritage as idle breakwaters to splinter and destroy when progress demands, Raymond Depardon lets his farmers weep for him and for us and for themselves.

The world has to grow up; the greater number has to gain the greater good. But that is no reason not to record and immortalise the individual tragedies that feed the mulch and march of history.




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved