The best way to present and review Raymond Depardon's non-fiction portrait of France's traiditional classe paysanne is to take a look at the film's first few minutes.
La Vie Moderne opens with silent, sober credits: white helvetica on black. Slow down, viewers, take a deep breath. Depardon reminds us that rural life often has no time for bells and whistles, moves at its own pace. As the first image appears, a gorgeous, desolate country road bathed in the warm light of a summer's evening, the first of Gabriel Fauré's two majestic pieces fill our ears with elegiac melancholy.
Depardon's narration begins: "At the start, there is always a country road, and at the end of the road, a farm". The road he refers to unfolds before our eyes, snaking through remote hills far from the sounds of the city. It's summer, 9:30pm and as per usual, 88-year-old shepherd Marcel Privat is bringing his sheep home from pasture.
The camera glides down the unpaved road, smoothly, announcing the arrival of the filmmaker's car. It stops as Marcel comes into view, at a reasonable distance, so as not to frighten the animals. Herein lies the crux of Depardon's filmmaking approach: respectful, elegant, simple, discreet, but unable to subtract itself from the act of capturing the truth.
La Vie Moderne is a succession of quiet interviews with mountain farmers whose lifestyle is becoming extinct. Each begins with a country road, a long take during which we are invited to ponder the beauty of the landscape and the farms it sustains, barely, the fragility of a world which won't survive the onset of what can be referred to as "modern life": industrialization of agriculture, globalization, urbanization.
Despite having clearly won the farmers' trust, the interviews are awkward, as if the film fully acknowledged that the camera itself was an instrument of the modernity and therefore a threat. Appropriately, Depardon's portraits are made up of still, long takes in which truth is revealed almost by accident.
Having spent his childhood on a farm, Depardon has since traveled the world extensively as a celebrated photo-journalist (for Magnum, in part) and an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. He has recently returned to the countryside as a journalist investigating the invisible lives of the few French farmers who subsist outside techno-scientific world of industrialized agriculture.
Depardon's agenda, if he has one, does not inform his filmmaking. The objective here isn't to sing the quaint charms of an obsolete lifestyle, to point the finger or to turn these men and women into working class heroes. The nobility of his pursuit lies the trust he puts in both his subjects and his audience, the invitation to both parties to begin a virtual dialogue through the medium of film, a conversation at the end of which everyone can form their own opinions.
La Vie Moderne is not just an important document about our roots and the vanishing world of independent farming, it's also a beautiful and moving piece of cinema which awakens ambiguous feelings we all have - about nature, about family, about tradition - in a way which is both thought-provoking and edifying.
Following its debut at Cannes last year, La Vie Moderne - which was originally intended as a television documentary - has been seen by over 250,000 people in French cinemas, connecting with a surprisingly wide and receptive audience. It recently won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc for Best French Film of the year.