AlterEgo Films : société de production et de distribution

A country solicitor

A film by Sophie Bruneau and Marc-Antoine Roudil

Four overlapping cases being handled by a rural law firm in the Haute-Auvergne. The film follows the handling of two sales transactions, an inventory and a inheritance case. The film becomes the scene of property and financials deals, private conversations and secret exchanges, in short, the comedy of human life. The importance of words and the scrutiny of such details as gestures, attitudes and looks reveal certain ways of relating to the outside world, notably in matters of death and money. The painstakingly detailed approach to this closed notarial world allows us to witness a series of tableaux in several acts, in which the characters and their behavior seem part of another world, so close to our own yet so distant, so different from us yet so like us.

1999 / 75' / 35mm / 1,66 / Color / Dolby SR / english subtitles / Broadcast license 99 007

Photography : Antoine Marie Meert
Sound : Yves Capus
Editing : Philippe Boucq
Sound editing : Benoit Bruwier
Mixing : Philippe Baudhuin

An ADR production in co-production with Cobra Films. With France 2 and the support of the Centre du Cinéma et de l'Audiovisuel de la Communauté française de Belgique and the Walloon Cable distributors, the European Commission leader II Haute Auvergne, CNC, Procirep, Conseil régional d'Auvergne and Wallonie-Image Production / WIP.

First shown in France / Cantal : Tuesday 7th of September 1999, Aurillac Congress Center
Wednesday 8th of September 1999, Gymnasium of Condat-en-Fenier
First shown in France / Paris : Tuesday28th of October 1999, Wallonia-Brussels Center
First shown in Belgium : Friday 26th of November 1999, Espace Delvaux – Brussels
First broadcasted on : France2 on Sunday 12 of September 1999 at 11.55 PM

Distribution in France : Bodega Films / released on the 13th of October 2004

Awarded in the following festivals :

  • Prize for the Best Documentary film in Mannheim festival, 2000
  • Heritage Prize in Cinema du Réel Festival, 2000
  • Special Mention - Critic's Prize in FID Marseille, 2000

Selected in the following festivals :

  • Traces de vies, Clermont Ferrand 1999
  • Brussels Film Festival, 2000
  • Filmer à tout prix N°9, Brussels 2000
  • Mannheim International film festival, 2000
  • Cinéma du réel Festival, Paris 2000
  • Fipa, Biarritz 2000
  • Marseille International Documentary Film Festival, 2000
  • Independence and Creation Festival, Auch 2003
  • Documentary Film Colloquium / To film the conflict / Clemi Toulouse, 2004
  • Cinema and Rural World Festival, Tulle 2007

Exploring the otherness, published in the magazine Les Cahiers du cinema n° 549

How to approach otherness without falling into the trap of exoticism?

Marc-Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau's film describes the everyday life of a rural solicitors' office in the Haute-Auvergne. "A country solicitor" follows the handling of two transactions, an inventory, an inheritance case and the meetings between the solicitor and his clients, most of them being farmers.In order to avoid the feeling of a rural idyll that images of fields, farms, cattle and tractors would have provoked, the filmmakers focused on the law firm. The local colour has been erased to only appear verbally during the deals. Only farmers with their attitudes, the way they dress and the way they talk are an attestation of a rural culture.

The film never shows them in their natural environment; they are shown in a world which is not their own and in which they look clumsy and intimidated. In that context, the part of the rural idyll becomes blurred. Instead, it leaves a space for descriptions of behaviours where only gestures and words count. The image cannot simply rely on the ambiance of the office; it also has to invoke the outside world where the land remains the land. Paradoxically, confining this part of reality into a solicitor's office creates a feeling of permanence on the screen. Inheritances and conveyancing are part of a cycle where some die and others inherit, where some get old while others settle. These situations are repeated over and over throughout the centuries.

This feeling of a long-lasting reality is caused by the repetition of dealing sequences. From one meeting to another, words are invariably the same: "I won't let my plot go for less than..." So are the behaviours, irremovable: great respect for the country solicitor but cruel and narrow-minded wars between farmers. This way of focusing on one place reminds us of the film "Délits flagrants" by Depardon in which lateral views were used to give a chilling impression of the distance between the judge and the accused. Here, there is no use of lateral views; the relation between the solicitor and his clients more closely resembles the relation between a teacher and his pupils. With, to cap it all, a touch of paternalism that characterises the attitude of a solicitor towards clients who know little about fiscal rules or market values of their property (one overestimates, the other fiddles).

The solicitor shows that he is familiar with these situations; he even wears an ochre pullover to match his office's walls, as if he was in total fusion with his environment. He is the master of ceremonies, the only one able to stage. For example, tapping his pen means it is time to conclude the transaction. The film is guided by two lines of force that both avoid the vein of exoticism. The first one revives the un-filmed land of which the deals are the only remaining traces. The other one is more descriptive; it is the detailed approach that shows the farmers' behaviour and the solicitor's staging tips and tricks.

Jean-Sébastien Chauvin

In Positif n° 526

A country solicitor – a documentary by Marc-Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau.

One could consider that pastoral life, inheritance and goods are, by essence, some concepts difficult to film. Mistake! The filmmakers had the brilliant idea about the place where these concepts come together: a solicitor's office. The man who has accepted to be filmed is perfect: a gentleman, a diplomat and a prominent citizen. Someone who seems to be able to deal with psychological and financial transactions. When he takes his pen to write down some data, his writing is already sacred.

While managing sales, inventories and inheritance cases, he also channels emotions. Those who appear before him are buyers and sellers. Between them is distrust and hostility. There is suffering for someone who sells his land. But the one who buys it can also suffer: he has to make a loan, therefore still being dependent on someone else. Ownership drive creates extraordinary intense feelings: let's think about Joffroi, one of Pagnol's characters. But here, we are not in a fiction film.

As a neutral observer, the camera films the variations of a ritual and the behaviour of the participants. Their archaism is less striking than their dignity. The inventory of a deceased's house may well look like a treasure hunt, yet the camera always stays at the right distance. The humanist sympathy and the clever balances of power sometimes lead to poisonous sentiments. However, this astonishing film is highly spiced. It helps to understand why in 1789 the bourgeois who wrote the constitution concluded their declaration by article 17: "Property being a sacred and inalienable right, no one can be deprived of it."

Françoise Audé

In Le monde, 13th of October 2004

Plunged into the daily life of a country solicitor, Marc-Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau have filmed with respect and tenderness some sequences of a rare intensity. Their film is not only a precious anthropological document but it is also a delicate and fragile collection of short stories.

Isabelle Regnier

Interview – Sophie Bruneau From Frederick Wiseman to “A country solicitor”

The first film by Wiseman that I have seen was Missile in the original version with no subtitles. I couldn’t understand what was being said. I walked out, a little discouraged. Later, I saw other films and I started to feel fascinated by the complexity of this monumental work, by its regularity, its unity and its vastness… I was fascinated by the fact that someone was daring enough to make films that lasted so long. Wiseman finds the right length for each film without taking into consideration the usual distribution restrictions, the broadcast criteria and the norms to which the spectator is used to.

I was stunned by the way he was leaving the speech unfolding in very long shots and also by this feeling of immersion into reality that the use of extremely light material was making possible. I had never seen that before. Wiseman is a jurist by training. This enters into his obsession for order, law and authority. His cinema is particularly interesting from an anthropological point of view because it magnifies all what pertains to the anthropology of communication’s area: details, attitudes, gestures, words, postures...

I was interested by micro-sociology and by the Interactionist perspective of which Goffman was a great contributor. Wiseman and Goffman studied tenuous interactions. They considered communication like an integrated social process and worked on the existing relationships between interactionism and social concerns.

I have also questioned anthropology and cinema through the notion of an author: Wiseman and Goffman created a style to make the ordinary visible and comprehensible, to produce a distance, a de-familiarisation. Wiseman’s style manifests itself through a great abstraction that he can reach through the editing structure. There is such a great unity between his films that one could talk about them like one long film of 75 hours. From the beginning of the 70s, he understood the similarities between the different institutions that he was visiting: for example, the prison guard in Titicut Follies resembles the person in charge of the discipline in High School or to the policeman in Law and order.

Little by little, he realised that his films were becoming more and more intertwined, and he started to conceive his work as a whole. He then lent to a more and more obsessional thought process as if he wanted to reproduce the same situation in different places. That generated the feeling of confinement that one feels when discovering his complete works. From Titicut Follies, the metaphor of the total institution is present in all his films. Wiseman encloses the places with stylistic devices and makes the confinement tangible.

It is always the case even in more open places as in Central Park or Public housing. Personally I tend to work on subjects that have nothing in common with the others: when I imagine my next film, I know it will be very different from the one I am shooting at present which is itself very different from the previous one. To the contrary, Wiseman has a very systematic way of writing; his films answer to one another so much that it all becomes claustrophobic. The weight of the institution is so heavy so rigid and so constant that one cannot imagine the possibility for a change. I have learnt to understand documentary cinema by working on Wiseman’s work. As a filmmaker, what I glean from his method is to film long shots, to reproduce the word with its whole length and to let things settle. Wiseman’s cinema is a cinema of listening and editing. In Façon de parler, Goffman says that there is a sort of edit in the speech, a kind of drama proper to conversation. According to him, speaking is not only saying things, it is also telling a story, which implies a narrative structure. Wiseman understands that very well. Even if he revises a lot while editing, one has the feeling of witnessing discussions in real-time, as if there were no cuts. There is a sort of transparency in his writing that gives one the feeling that nothing has been touched.

In our film “A country solicitor”, the main sequence with Chanet and Gauthier, which opens and closes the film, was originally running for one hour, but we only kept in twenty minutes. I would have liked to have 50 hours worth of rushes like Wiseman for his first films but we only had a dozen, which is a good average for a documentary film. Therefore we didn’t have the same freedom during the editing; the choices we made while shooting were more decisive. Wiseman shoots during four, five or six weeks. He doesn’t go on location because he finds it too frustrating. I experienced this with “A country solicitor”: on location, we had a very interesting case but we didn’t have a camera with us! Wiseman tends to avoid that.

He just goes one or two days in the place to understand its topography and the way it works. Then, while shooting, he realises that situations keep repeating themselves after a while. As with the interactionist approach, Wiseman is creating a sort of ethology of interactions. When Goffman used to talk about the sources of his non-systematic naturalist method of observation, he was referring to ethologists who succeeded in isolating significant moments in the flow of an animal’s activity, which made visible the relevant activities.

During the debate following the screening of “A country solicitor” in the “Cinema du Réel” festival , a musician praised the film by highlighting the notion of silence and the different forms of silence in the different sequences. She understood that the power of what was being said in the film was stemming from the silences. “A country solicitor” I co-directed the film “A country solicitor” with Marc-Antoine Roudil who is a native of Auvergne, in the Cantal. We wanted to make a film about the Cantal farmers and landscapes for a long time. We knew the place well even though we had a certain distance from it because we didn’t live there.

Therefore we had to find a point of view… One day, on the occasion of a personal inheritance, Marc-Antoine went to visit the solicitor. He was very enthusiastic when he came back and we said to ourselves: “That’s the place were things happen!” And indeed, we discovered a world of great human potential. The great deeds that are drawn up with a solicitor are almost like a rite of passage: a marriage contract, the purchase of a property, the acquisition and transmission of wealth are fundamental steps in one’s life. Private ownership is something extremely important in our society; from an anthropological point of view, it is a place where very interesting things happen. There, death and money are always closely related. We then made a “casting” for a solicitor in the area and when we found Mr Faucher-Garros, we said to ourselves: “that’s him!” We first received the authorisation from the president of the “Cantal’s Chambre des notaires”.

Choosing to become a notary is something one does either by a family tradition or to amass a fortune. Faucher-Garros also practices because he loves human relations. He loves negotiations, one can feel it in the film, he wants to succeed and he can’t stand failure (for example in the Pallut/Barbat negotiation). We were afraid of the space he was going to take in the film because he has character. A character – an important notion in documentaries – defines itself in the course of the film. He himself was a character from the very beginning. He is nearly the character of the reality who carries the drama within him and who takes his part in the story. We had to be careful because we didn’t want to make a film about the notary profession.

It was not a portrait of Faucher-Garros. Primarily, it was a means to talk about the people from there, those who were sitting in front of him. The solicitor is a kind of conductor. We were mainly interested in the clients’ gestures and attitudes. For example, Gauthier’s behaviour during the negotiation of the sale of his land: he was not looking at Chanet; he was looking away. All negotiation strategies involve postures. He stood up while saying: “Well, couldn’t you make an effort Chanet? All right then, I think I’ll leave you, we’ll stop here.” But in fact, he didn’t leave, he didn’t want to go, he also wanted to close the deal and he was putting the pressure on almost physically by taking his cap and pretending to leave. All these strategies are remarkable; there is great sophistication in negotiations.

Expressions like “All right to sell it but not to give it away” are culturally established. It is a way of speaking. That’s why it is important to see “A country solicitor” on the big screen. I want it to be released because one has to see the details, the expressions, the gestures and the subtle moves of the characters. A detail like the noise of a pen on the paper creates a dramatic tension. Faucher-Garos is comfortable in this kind of dramatic art. His office is very theatrical, it works like a stage set: wallpaper, furniture, paintings… To the contrary of Wiseman, we had a sound recordist, a camera mounted on a pedestal and an exceptional light installation for a film in the style of direct cinema. We wanted a warm light so we changed all the light bulbs and the neon lights… When we left, the secretaries returned to their usual lighting and they couldn’t see a damned thing! Somehow, the camera was almost invisible in that place.

I like this notion of invisibility, which is also manifest in Wiseman’s work. The spectators were surprised not to feel our presence. In fact, the clients were arriving at the office without knowing anything about the film. We were standing in the waiting room and we were waiting for the clients like the solicitor was waiting for them in his office. We had to remain vigilant, even if sometimes we waited for a long time before anybody arrived. In those little provincial towns, people often arrive unannounced just because they are in the area. That was the case with Chanet and Gauthier, and that turned out to be the main sequence of the film. Wiseman taught me a lot about authorisations for shooting. After Titucut Follies, he always asked personally for his authorisations: he was recording the demands and he was creating cue cards for classification. The profession of a notary is covered by the obligation of professional secrecy.

Therefore we wanted to protect ourselves. We had written a text establishing the film subject, the career it was going to have, the broadcast conditions, etc. We were asking the people to accept everything and sign. Very few refused. When people were entering the room, I was having a discussion with them. As they trusted their solicitor and their solicitor trusted us, they also trusted us. They accepted and sometimes they even felt honoured to be filmed during a deal with a solicitor.

Gauthier was only interested in his own deal. After the screening of the film, a journalist from La Montagne asked him how he succeeded in being so natural. He just answered: “I was selling my farm, I’m only going to sell it once in my life!” I really loved Gauthier’s look at that moment: he looked straight into the camera when the solicitor went into the corridor to get Chanet. Gauthier was really looking at us but he was also looking beyond; he was somewhere else. We wanted to talk about the farmers’ world through what happened in the solicitor’s office. In the countryside, it is often women who are doing the managing. The scene with Barbat about the settlement gift says a lot about the tradition-bound patriarchal system. He says that only his son works in the same domain; his daughters are working at the post office or elsewhere. The transfer of assets in the agricultural world is mainly done from father to son.

A farm cannot be shared otherwise it is doomed to die. In the sequence, the solicitor says that the daughters have to be allotted something; the son is supposed to give them compensation. In fact, the property valuation is done on the cheap in order to give the minimum to the daughters so that the son doesn’t have to pay all his life. Of course the funny thing with the Palluts is that the husband is almost deaf; therefore Mrs Pallut is speaking for him. In the reverse shot, the solicitor is questioning the husband and because it is she who is answering, his eyes slowly turn towards her.

And at the end, with his wicked sense of humour, he says to her: “As you have been the interpreter, you may sign as well.” He hit the nail on the head. In their telephone conversations, she used to say that she couldn’t decide anything on her own, but the solicitor knows the part she can play and the influence she carries. In contrast, there is something she ignored: for her husband, pride is more important than the money he can get from the sale. To save face, he prefers not to sell and die with his land, which in the end will end up in the Barbat’s hands for an even smaller price than the one they had first proposed. Out of pride, he prefers keeping his land until his death; this is essential. The shooting took between 4 to 6 weeks. The essentials of the editing were done in 4 weeks.

The good sequences immediately imposed themselves. But we had to work a lot up-front: we had lived in the Cantal, an hour away from Condat. We took advantage of some periods of waiting to get married and to sign a pre-nuptial agreement between us. We created some relationships with the people that we have filmed. The first screening was the most beautiful one.

We organised it in the village of Condat. We requisitioned the city gymnasium and called an itinerant projectionist. The landlady of the café next-door told us: “You know here, apart from football… You may not have a lot of people around, people don’t go out so much!” We were worried. In fact, the room ended up being too small; people came from all the surrounding villages. Since the Liberation they hadn’t seen so many people. We had to add some benches; the gymnasium was packed. The solicitor was pacing nervously; he was livid. All the protagonists of the film were there: the Palluts, Chanets, Gauthiers… That was so unexpected. The mayor couldn’t talk anymore; he never had so many people in front of him. What was formidable was that the Palluts as well as the Gauthiers had the feeling of having won. We had a lot of articles in the local press. Chanet and Gauthier became local heroes in their own way.

Interview transcribed by Sarah Sékaly

How to approach otherness without falling into the trap of exoticism?

Marc-Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau’s film describes the everyday life of a rural solicitors’ office in the Haute-Auvergne. “A country solicitor” follows the handling of two transactions, an inventory, an inheritance case and the meetings between the solicitor and his clients, most of them being farmers. In order to avoid the feeling of a rural idyll that images of fields, farms, cattle and tractors would have provoked, the filmmakers focused on the law firm. The local colour has been erased to only appear verbally during the deals. Only farmers with their attitudes, the way they dress and the way they talk are an attestation of a rural culture.

The film never shows them in their natural environment; they are shown in a world which is not their own and in which they look clumsy and intimidated. In that context, the part of the rural idyll becomes blurred. Instead, it leaves a space for descriptions of behaviours where only gestures and words count. The image cannot simply rely on the ambiance of the office; it also has to invoke the outside world where the land remains the land. Paradoxically, confining this part of reality into a solicitor’s office creates a feeling of permanence on the screen.

Inheritances and conveyancing are part of a cycle where some die and others inherit, where some get old while others settle. These situations are repeated over and over throughout the centuries. This feeling of a long-lasting reality is caused by the repetition of dealing sequences. From one meeting to another, words are invariably the same: “I won’t let my plot go for less than…” So are the behaviours, irremovable: great respect for the country solicitor but cruel and narrow-minded wars between farmers.

This way of focusing on one place reminds us of the film “Délits flagrants” by Depardon in which lateral views were used to give a chilling impression of the distance between the judge and the accused. Here, there is no use of lateral views; the relation between the solicitor and his clients more closely resembles the relation between a teacher and his pupils. With, to cap it all, a touch of paternalism that characterises the attitude of a solicitor towards clients who know little about fiscal rules or market values of their property (one overestimates, the other fiddles). The solicitor shows that he is familiar with these situations; he even wears an ochre pullover to match his office’s walls, as if he was in total fusion with his environment. He is the master of ceremonies, the only one able to stage.

For example, tapping his pen means it is time to conclude the transaction. The film is guided by two lines of force that both avoid the vein of exoticism. The first one revives the un-filmed land of which the deals are the only remaining traces. The other one is more descriptive; it is the detailed approach that shows the farmers’ behaviour and the solicitor’s staging tips and tricks.

Jean-Sébastien Chauvin

A country solicitor – a documentary by Marc-Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau.

One could consider that pastoral life, inheritance and goods are, by essence, some concepts difficult to film. Mistake! The filmmakers had the brilliant idea about the place where these concepts come together: a solicitor’s office. The man who has accepted to be filmed is perfect: a gentleman, a diplomat and a prominent citizen. Someone who seems to be able to deal with psychological and financial transactions. When he takes his pen to write down some data, his writing is already sacred. While managing sales, inventories and inheritance cases, he also channels emotions. Those who appear before him are buyers and sellers. Between them is distrust and hostility. There is suffering for someone who sells his land. But the one who buys it can also suffer: he has to make a loan, therefore still being dependent on someone else. Ownership drive creates extraordinary intense feelings: let’s think about Joffroi, one of Pagnol’s characters. But here, we are not in a fiction film. As a neutral observer, the camera films the variations of a ritual and the behaviour of the participants. Their archaism is less striking than their dignity. The inventory of a deceased’s house may well look like a treasure hunt, yet the camera always stays at the right distance. The humanist sympathy and the clever balances of power sometimes lead to poisonous sentiments. However, this astonishing film is highly spiced. It helps to understand why in 1789 the bourgeois who wrote the constitution concluded their declaration by article 17: “Property being a sacred and inalienable right, no one can be deprived of it.” Françoise Aude

Plunged into the daily life of a country solicitor, Marc-Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau have filmed with respect and tenderness some sequences of a rare intensity. Their film is not only a precious anthropological document but it is also a delicate and fragile collection of short stories.

Isabelle Regnier.

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