For one year, from 1944 to 1945, Georges Rouquier shared the life of a peasant family, his own, in the Farrebique farm in Goutrens, in the Rouergue region. He shows us life on a farm, marked by the rhythm of seasons, from harvesting in summer to the grandfather’s rituals of slicing the bread for dinner. The film also dwells on the hardships of life on a farm and the transformation brought on by the arrival of electricity, of modern times. Farrebique reveals the beauty of these people, their closeness to their beasts and to nature, facing an often harsh life.
“Farrebique, or the Four Seasons,” was shot at and near the farm in the course of a year, in 1944 and 1945. Its over-all subject is the conflict between law and tradition, the impingement of modernity on the isolated lives of farmers. The nineteenth-century farm house was literally showing cracks, and the elderly patriarch’s two sons, Henri and Roch, had different ideas about how to respond. Henri wanted to rebuild the house (at significant expense) and improve the farm; Roch, the eldest son, wanted to patch it up cheaply and continue to farm for subsistence as before. The farm has no electricity (the house is lighted with flickering gas lamps); Roch’s wife, Berthe, and Henri want to install it—but Roch also refuses to invest in it. The difference between the brothers is that, because of the custom of primogeniture, Roch was anticipating inheriting the entire farm, and because, by law, inheritances were to be distributed equally among the children, he wanted to keep the assessed value of the farm low in order to avoid owing his siblings money at the time of his father’s death.
The patriarch nonetheless resents Roch’s inaction and reproaches him sharply for it, fearing that the farm will deteriorate because of his son’s conservatism. In the course of the action, Henri (who in real life was already married) courts a neighbor, Fabrette, the grandfather dies, and the division of the estate takes place. Roch becomes the proprietor of the farm; he has to pay his siblings (not just Henri but his three sisters, two of whom are nuns) off, and he will continue to run it. The legal action is significant—“Farrebique” is in large part a juridical drama in which the virtual background grid of law and custom are thrust into the foreground. But it’s integrated with a meticulous, passionate documentation of the rounds of daily work on the farm—sowing seeds, plowing fields, hauling crops with the aid of oxen, harvesting vegetables by hand, grinding wheat with a gasoline-powered machine, kneading dough and packing it under blankets to rise, baking bread in the farmhouse’s brick oven. (One minor detail that I find particularly striking is the patriarch’s use of a knife that would have to be razor-sharp to cut fine, thin slices off a boulder-like loaf of bread.)
Rouquier records the social rites and practices of the farm and its neighborhood—church services, childbirth at home, courtship, the patriarch’s funeral, singing and dancing in a café—as well as the family’s linguistic habits: the patriarch speaks not French but Occitan (in the original release, his dialogue was subtitled in French), which his children and grandchildren understand (but they respond in French). The cinematography, by André A. Dantan, is intimate yet monumental; he and Rouquier compose images of a stark and pure graphic severity that renders daily action and familiar routine dynamic, energetic, heroic.
Rouquier’s film is only superficially a documentary. He punctuates the film with time-lapse sequences that show crops growing and flowers blooming, macrophotographic sequences that show blood pumping in arteries and cellular reproduction. He blends the drama of social life in and around the farm—and the cycle of seasons that governs it—with biological analysis. The movie’s central sequence—a visual reconstruction of a century of Farrebique’s history from the family’s perspective, as narrated by the grandfather to his grandson Raymondou—is a virtual evolutionary account of the growth of a farm. A masterly editor, Rouquier brings the long, cyclical rhythms—domestic, seasonal, generational, historical—of farm life with varied and perceptible cinematic rhythms. With its grand cinematography, its built-in social science, and its sense of montage, “Farrebique” most closely resembles a film by Eisenstein; it’s almost like a work of Soviet silent cinema without the ideological obligations and overlays, in which actual social science takes the place of political dogma.