To a packed salle de fete in Etang sur Arroux for a showing of a documentary film, L’Alice, a fly-on-the-wall style documentary about the life of a woman farmer in the hamlet of Dront, near Anost, in the Morvan.
Alice Dumont, in this film made between 2006 and 2008, is a widow who runs a traditional farm with her odds job man Pierrot Garnet. (I should preface all of the following by saying that a large part of the French of the film was too colloquial and too fast for me – I mostly got by through looking at the pictures, and while that meant I missed a lot of the laughs, I still got a huge amount out of it, but I may have got some details askew.)
There are ducks and geese and hens, all fed, as Alice tells us, on proper grains, none of that pellet stuff; cattle and sheep (and the scene with Alice massaging the tongue of a milking cow, which chews on her hand as gently and affectionately as a puppy, is an unforgettable image of inter-species understanding); rabbits, a traditional source of protein in the Morvan – there are cages still in my garden; and plentiful vegetables (we see Alice transplanting the lettuce seedlings, hard work at any age). And of course cats and rather plump dogs, and horses around, although apparently no longer in working use.
This is country life – almost no scenes barred from the camera, including animal death and human mourning. It was interesting that the audience, pretty well entirely local, gasped and exhibited shock at the killing of a rabbit by the traditional method here – it was stunned by a punch to the head, having been held upside down until it was still, then the throat cut with a thin-bladed knife. Yet there’s much compassion and care for the animals – Alice practically talks to them and they appear to understand, most notably in a scene where some hens wander through the house.
The audience were interestingly also rather uncomfortable with the making of blood sausages – into pig intestines, then boiled in an outside vat; something that was probably one of the highlights of their parents’ year, and certainly something Alice and her friends much enjoyed.
So the life is fascinating, as a fast-disappearing, but highly sustainable and ecologically sound one (I’d love to be able to put together some of the older people still living this life with some groups I know of that are trying to in effect re-create it from scratch, because I think at the moment there’s little communication, but much that could be learnt).
But it’s also a wonderful human and often also wonderfully funny story. The scene of a cat clambering backwards down a snowy ladder in mid-winter; Alice’s discovery of the accident of ploughing that left lettuce seedlings wandering across the field; neighbours getting together in cheery if rather alcohol-fueled fraternity.
And the total star is Alice herself – her energy and enthusiasm for life are breathtaking. The scene of her chasing at full speed runaway cattle through the forest – well one can only wish to be capable of that at 80. And she’s clearly someone who’s suffered a lot in her life – her husband I gathered was killed in a tractor accident, and since then she’s carried on the vast work of the farm almost single-handed (inside and outside work), with only the rather limited help of Pierre.
She’s utterly unself-conscious in front of the camera – utterly comfortable with herself and who she is – and director Alice Comode has done a wonderful job of bringing it all together. She was at the showing and indicated, I believe, in questions afterwards that Alice died last year –
One Facebook commentary describes the film as “une formidable leçon de vie”, which I think sums it up pretty well. Even if you don’t understand a word of French, it’s a film you could get a lot out of.
More about the film.