In an episode in Richard Copans’s autobiographical essay, Racines, an elderly man provides Copans with a tour of his grandparents’ house in Picardy, explaining that, like the expression “to put under glass” something that is cherished, he was inspired to convert the modest, turn of the (nineteenth) century home into a museum as a means of capturing the essence of a way of life that no longer exists. In a sense, La Vie moderne, the third chapter in Raymond Depardon’s pastoral work in progress Profils paysans, expresses a similar sentiment of admiration and nostalgia. Returning to the farming village of Le Villaret in the mountainous region of Cévennes in the Massif Central, Depardon first visits the remote farm of cattle ranchers, brothers Marcel and Raymond Privat who, both already in their 80s, find the physical demands of their livelihood an increasing challenge, even with the begrudging addition of a family member, Cécile, the new wife of their middle-aged nephew Alain, who left the city life of Calais to live as a farmer after meeting her future husband through a personal ad in the newspaper. Struggling to adjust with unfamiliar household dynamics caused by Cécile and her teenaged daughter, Camille’s introduction into what had been a bachelors’ home for decades – and perhaps more subtly, their waning authority over family matters as a result of Cécile’s influence on Alain – Marcel and Raymond bristle at the idea of a generation gap that has widened since Cécile’s arrival, even as they complain of a general lack of deference to elders and the old ways.
Incorporating recurring, seasonal images of long, winding roads that weave the farms together into a collective portrait of isolation and obsolescence – a theme that is insightfully prefigured in the landing shot of Marcel grazing a flock of sheep with his Occitan-trained dog, Mirette – Depardon further juxtaposes images of death that implicitly correlate the fate of these ancestral farms: a visit to the reclusive Paul Argaud who is watching a televised broadcast of Abbé Pierre’s funeral; the rapidly declining health of Raymond’s prized cow; the news of Marcelle Brès’s death, who had been the last inhabitant of the neighboring hamlet of Lhermet. However, the crisis of a disappearing way of life is not only relegated to an aging rural population, as a younger generation of farmers also echo similar tales of hardship and a limited future: Brès’s former tenant farmers, Jean-François and Nathalie recount their struggle in the previous year with a virulent parasite that killed several cows, providing not so subtle encouragement to their son to study hard in order to have better opportunities and not follow in their footsteps; Germaine and Marcel Challaye, planning for their retirement, are resigned to selling the family farm after their children expressed a lack of interest in assuming control; Abel Jean and Gilberte Roy have entrusted the farm to their youngest son, Daniel who, in turn, resents being rooted to one place, and prefers the itinerant life of a seasonal worker; a young mother, Amandine Valla, eager to try her hand at farming, cannot afford the added maintenance of raising livestock and is forced to abandon her avocation. Closing with the shot of a sunlit narrow road that now leads away from familiar pastures, Depardon abstains from a direct commentary on cultural extinction and instead, captures the ephemeral moment under his own preservative glass, casting a lingering, reverent gaze over a gradually transforming landscape that is distant and sublime.
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