Profils Paysans

Profils Paysans (Farmer Profiles) is a film divided into three chapters made by Raymond Depardon and Claudine Nougaret centred on the lives of small farmers in the Cévennes region in southeastern France along the Massif Centrale. The area is mountainous and hilly, the farms isolated, set on the steep slopes of the Massif. The only farming possible on such land is husbandry, the raising of cattle, sheep, goats, but herd size is limited by the terrain. Holdings are small and the land unproductive for large scale commercial agriculture or breeding. In short, farming is marginal and no longer profitable left behind by current agriculture, yet labour-intensive.

Existence is difficult in the Cévennes and the way of life of its farmers doomed to extinction, casualties of La vie moderne. The few remaining farmers in the Cévennes are old and frail, herds are dwindling, the scrub is taking over the hillsides, the land is exhausted and the farmers more so. Villages have turned into hamlets and hamlets have disappeared. The area is depopulated, while young people, sons and daughters, cousins, nieces, nephews of older farmers, have little incentive to carry on working the land. A critical problem for the farmers of the Cévennes is their legacy, to whom will they pass on the land, who will inherit their earth and their labour. The land is giving out and the people giving up. Many farmers are in their eighties either still working or unable to work and slowly they are dying off.

The subject of Profils Paysans, as with nearly all of Depardon’s films, is the neglected, the peripheral, the forgotten, those lost at the borders of modern life, victims of new institutions, of the law and of changes inherent in life itself. Profils Paysans is a film concerned essentially with time.


Claudine Nougaret has been the producer and sound engineer on most of the films usually credited exclusively to Depardon (almost 40 films). In fact, her role has been central and not only for the recording of sound and the details of production, but for overall planning, execution, the solution of problems, the mapping of strategies, making contact, organising and finance. Nougaret’s contributions are especially valuable because Depardon-Nougaret films are settings for the spoken word, for sound and dialogue, the area where she is most skilled. The films take place in court rooms, offices, police stations, kitchens, dining rooms, corridors, waiting rooms, hospitals, insane asylums, prisons, where they are set, put in scene. One way or another, literally or figuratively, those filmed are constrained, handcuffed, made inmates or patients because of the rooms in which they are placed and because of the situations in which they find themselves, in either case, they are unable to move, to extricate themselves. Much of the success and structure of the films are dependent on Nougaret’s abilities as a sound engineer working in a confined space in direct sound and necessarily attentive to the duration of shots in relation to the duration and sense of speech (editing and cutting are minimal) and the way in which image and sound seek out the slightest gestures and intonations of the persons filmed.

Depardon and Nougaret are married, a film-making couple, like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Johan van der Keuken and Nosh van der Lely and, since the early 1970s, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville. Depardon is the son of small farmers near Villefranche-sur-Sâone, north of Lyon and to the north of the Cévennes. His childhood and happiest memories are connected to the farm (Le ferme du Garet). The couple, Depardon-Nougaret, is not dissimilar from a farming couple toiling together with limited means and strong passions, sensitive to accident, skilled at improvisation, dealing with obstacles, like Depardon’s parents and the farmers he speaks with in Profils Paysans. There is something old-fashioned and reminiscent of the couple.

In an interview with Depardon and Nougaret in Cahiers du cinéma, Nougaret indicated that the project for Profils Paysans was fifteen years in the making.[1] The three chapters are L’approche (2000), Le quotidien (2004) and La vie moderne (2008). Between the film(s) and their life there is not much difference.


Depardon became interested in photography on the farm while in his early teens. His photos were of the farm, its courtyard, the stone steps leading to the grange, his parents, relatives, friends, dogs, livestock, the hidden places of the farm that were ‘his’, the attic in the barn, where he developed his photographs. At 14, he was apprenticed to an optician-photographer in Villefranche. Two years later he left the region (the farm, his parents, his childhood, the optician) for Paris where he found work at the photographic agency Magnum as a pigiste, a piece worker, paid per photograph used. Soon Depardon was employed on staff full-time at Magnum, salaried as a reporter-photographer. He followed the news, current events, persons (celebrities, politicians) that were deemed significant (newsworthy, notable) by the agency which sold its photographs to journals, magazines and newspapers acquiring in the process an immense archive of sold and unsold images to be marketed later when conditions were favourable. Depardon in fact less followed the news than was led by it, determined by it, dictated to by it. Going through his own photographs in the archives, Depardon noticed that for him the most interesting ones were least significant for the agency or its clients. What was thought significant (hence commercial) had little meaning for Depardon and seemed, as current notoriety often is, ephemeral, both important and trivial at once.

Depardon not only felt distant from the significant, but he had little appetite for the poetic (a beautiful landscape), the romantic (the peasantry) or the meaningful (a humanism), for these kinds of rationales and ends. Robert Frank, the American photographer, was most admired by Depardon especially Frank’s photographs taken of New York, for their honesty and directness, even brutality, quite different than the ‘model’ for French photography (and beyond France) of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. “…l’Amérique de Cartier-Bresson est plus traditionnelle, plus romantique, au fond un peu fausse.” (“…the America of Cartier-Bresson is too conventional, too romantic, essentially a bit false.”)[2]

For Depardon, the photographs of photo-journalism were a constraint, an institutional demand, not something personal, not like the ‘free’ photographs young Depardon had taken on the family farm and for no apparent reason save his interests, fascination and what he loved. Such photographs – personal, insignificant, marginal—were more compelling for him and more open than the closed ‘official’ images imposed by photo-journalism and that defined it. This kind of conventional photography has been criticised and analysed in the writings of Roland Barthes for their dishonesty and by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in their Letter to Jane for their ideology, all the more pernicious for being hidden by an appearance of truth, reality and objectivity, in short by reportage, an entire industry of dishonest image-production. Depardon’s attraction to what was peripheral, what might be thought to be ‘empty’, that is, without a ‘subject’, was outside the pertinent, habitual, nameable, expected, beautiful and definable. These margins became the ‘subject’ of his later photographs, at once personal (his presence could be felt), a veering from the ‘objective’ (without losing reality), no longer subservient to the agencies, a commitment both to the everyday and often the unnoticed or ignored. As photography went in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Depardon was not alone. He photographed the unspeakable, not integrated, the displaced: criminals, the insane, the sick and the old farmers of the Cévennes. The images Depardon produced as photographs, with words and on film were ‘weak’, nothing totalised, no imposed dominant voice or sight. Their weakness, an apparent lack of framing, and a disjunction between words and images, such that neither the one nor the other functioned to illustrate or explain, became also a strength of his films. His photographs were neither reportage nor militancy nor poetry but their negation.

“Je pense encore aujourd’hui, sincèrement que le photographe n’est pas un journaliste”… (“I still sincerely believe that the photographer is not a journalist.”)[3]

the “I”

The photographs of photo-journalism involve a tautology: what is noted is notable, what is not noted, not notable. The mayoral election campaign of Jacques Chirac, for example, was noted and so noted it became notable and because it was notable, it was noted. Reporters were sent out to take notice. Such photographs are essentially fictional based on the fiction that what is referred to ‘in’ the photograph is external to the picturing of it, the photographic images thereby objective, reproducing what is in front of it, as if not ‘I’, but reality, the referent, has determined the image, while the subject of the image, what is reproduced, effaces the image causing it and its author to disappear by its force and its conventionality (a figure, an event, the ‘historical’). Instead of the ‘I’, still less a discourse, there is ‘fact’ and ‘objectivity’, perfect transparency achieved by a denial of presence as if nothing had been enunciated, nothing articulated, instead something recorded. In short, the photographs of photo-journalism present themselves (it is their pose) as undeniable testament: “this has happened.” In doing so, negation, anything other than itself is denied and image and the reality so unified that reality seems to speak unaided, unformed, untouched.

It was this aspect of photo-journalism that Depardon found unacceptable, that isolated him, made him uneasy and unhappy, not only for the constraint of the subject, but for its apparent anonymity and falseness, its pretence at truth. Depardon’s ‘own’ photographs, those in his books, books of photos and texts – around 30 titles to date – such as Errance (Wandering), Le tour du monde en 14 jours (Around the World in 14 Days), La solitude heureuse du voyager (The Carefree Loneliness of the Traveller), Afrique(s) (Africa(s)), 1968, New York, Paris Journal, La ferme du Garet (Farm Garet), La Terre des paysans (Farmer’s Earth) are products of wandering without specific purpose or end, without a unity, unassigned, no goal except to wander, to depart, to be elsewhere and in the process to be open, aware, alert to the slightest murmurs of light and gesture to an unaccustomed path or association, a purposeless purpose that privileges encounters, chance, accident, the everyday, as if every journey was a journey to take oneself elsewhere, and, by going away, establish a distance in order to get close.

Such an enterprise is a valorisation of the quotidien, the indefinable, impalpable and unpredictable. It resumes the preoccupations of the modernist avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, of Surrealism, of Vertov, of Futurism, more to do with meetings of differences than assigned journeys of purpose and ends. Is Depardon not a flâneur?

Depardon’s photographs are, like his films, non-informative, non-interpretative, and (in the films) mute. He asks questions, but refuses to be questioned. It is precisely his negations that keep his images autonomous, free, unlimited, associative, and rebellious. It is something of a paradox that Depardon-Nougaret images are blank, frontal, fixed and of long duration yet, it is these qualities that make their work ambiguous, uncertain, diffident. What they affirm instead is the question, outsideness, what is ‘other’ and difficult to fix and categorise or accept: the lunatics in San Clemente, the distressed and confused in Urgences, the petty criminals of Délits Flagrants and Faits Divers, the farmers of the Cévennes in Profils Paysans, an interplanetary road movie amongst aliens.

‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’

Depardon’s initial act of freedom at 14 years old was to leave the farm for the sake of photography if only to take himself a few kilometers away to Villefranche. It was the beginning of his journey, as it is with all of us, away from childhood. Depardon’s sense of time however was not progressive. Childhood may have come first, his earliest and most pleasant experience, but it was never left behind, never passed by into ‘maturity’, consigned to the past and forgotten, not in Villefranche, not in Paris, never in all his wanderings and assignments as a photographer in North Africa, Black Africa, the African desert, the bush, other parts of Europe, the United States, New York, nor by his marriage to Claudine (the farmer couple!).

However far Depardon was from home, from the central courtyard at Garet, however elsewhere he was, and especially when he was elsewhere, he longed for home. At home, he longed to leave for elsewhere, to be a voyageur (traveller) and yet still remain a casanier (a stay-at-home), both identities at once, his body in one place, his thoughts and affections elsewhere.

One way to be a voyageur is to be an artist, to write, photograph, paint, compose, film, to lose oneself on the path to help find oneself yet always being elsewhere one way or another (‘I’ is always ‘other’, for no other reason than that it is language and ‘I’ is less a reality than a structure of speech). Depardon in his travels, either literally or by making things, was simultaneously close and distant, intimate and reserved, oneself and ‘other’, on the side of reality and on the side of the imaginary, both present in every image and word, nothing really lost, nothing cancelled, a paradox and a contradiction ‘held’, at the heart of errance.

The desert was an ‘ideal’ place for Depardon, perfect emptiness, and now and then an oasis, a palmeraie. He and Nougaret called their film production company Palmeraie & Désert. Returning from the African desert and arriving first in Marseille, Depardon wrote: “…pour moi, aujourd’hui, le voyage est fini, il ne me reste plus qu’à remonter la vallée du Rhône, suivre les platanes et les tuiles romaines, arriver à Villefranche-sur-Sâone, à la ferme Garet…C’est ici que je passé mon enfance, c’est dans cette cour que j’ai grandi, joué, photographié pour la première fois.” (“…for me, now, the trip is over, all that remains is to go up the Rhône valley, follow the plane trees and the Roman roof tiles, arrive at Villefranche-sur-Sâone, at the farm Garet…It is here that I spent my childhood; it is in its courtyard that I grew up, played, took photographs for the first time.”).[4] The image of the courtyard is the last image of his book Afrique(s) and these comments its last words.

The sense of here and elsewhere is not strictly biographical or autobiographical, but the essence of Depardon’s images, both photographic and cinematographic, where the real and the imaginary overlap. In that join and in the gap and difference between them, the two positions superimpose and touch one another, everywhere in Profils Paysans, in every image, every word. Depardon takes his distance in fact in the Cévennes by fixed images, lengthy sequences, a regard literally from the outside, yet imaginatively being there, he is transported to home, to Garet, to its courtyard, to his childhood. It is the final image in his imagination and also the first, where he begins and where he returns, travelling down a road, accompanied by the music of Gabriel Fauré’s mournful, melancholic Élégie (Opus 24), a refrain in the three chapters of Profils Paysans. Like the Fauré music, the film is an elegy, as in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (the title of a piece by Modest Mussorgsky and a homage to him) and Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (a homage to Maurice Ravel in the form of a tombeau).

At the end of the road in Profils Paysans there is a farm of a farmer family (the Privat or Rougière or Brès or others) and also, imaginatively Garet and Depardon’s childhood, his parents. The two locations superimpose, one present in reality, the other in memory, the one moving toward a future (of extinction), the other returning from the past (refreshed). In watching the ‘other’, the farmer families, so like what Depardon’s own and himself, as if traversing a mirror of time, passing to the other side like Orpheus does in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and the main character does in Marker’s La Jetée is the experience of loss and of presence simultaneously, of being somewhere yet absent, of reality and its image, the end of a journey and its inception, the distance of death and its closeness, new yet familiar encounters and thus strange, uncanny, (science) fictional.

By taking a path forward, by going toward places that recede in time and toward images of them that will survive, Depardon, returns and by the only means possible, from reality to the imaginary, from the distant to the close, from himself to ‘I’, then back again, nothing fixed. “Mes parents étaient paysans. Ce monde rural m’habite toujours.” (“My parents were farmers. The rural world is always alive in me”).[5]

mise en scène

“Les photos et le film, c’est vraiment deux choses différents, d’ailleurs la photographie n’est pas une bonne école pour faire du cinéma, c’est même un peu antinomique.” (“Photos and films are indeed two different things. Moreover, photography is not a good school for making films, on the contrary.”)

Following the twilight, autumnal, crepuscular ending of La vie moderne, the final chapter of Profils Paysans, the locations of the film are seen by a camera looking backwards at the road that the film and Depardon-Nougaret have traversed for nearly fifteen years (“the most beautiful light of the most beautiful season of the year”). The filmmakers take their leave of the Cévennes, accompanied by the Fauré Élégie. Each of the farmers that Depardon spoke with are presented in posed images as in a photograph, allowing us to go back in time (the time of their lives, of their own memories, the time of the film and its memories, the time of Depardon and his memories), to say goodbye to the characters, to the Cévennes and for the characters to bid us goodbye. The farmers in the three chapters and over a period of eight years (2000-2008), were the characters of Profils Paysans, who played themselves, not quite Chaplin as ‘Charlie’, but certainly transformed into images and words, at once real (themselves) and fictional (played), a documentary but unavoidably a fiction. The two dimensions constantly encounter one another as the farmers encounter their images. They, overlap, superimpose, neither effaced nor left behind nor left out.

Depardon and Nougaret carefully organised the shooting of the films. The settings have been selected as locations for ‘words’, laboratories for speaking: kitchens primarily, also dining-rooms, sometimes, less frequently, stables, and always the courtyards. The settings are where the theatre of the film ‘takes place’, where the film is literally ‘played’, ‘performed’ where the players assemble, where Depardon and Nougaret take their place and where the camera and sound recording apparatus take theirs, positioned, unseen, out of frame, but heard and obviously present, and not only because Depardon engages the players in conversation, takes possession of the word and Nougaret takes charge of recording to fit the sense of words, their duration and rhythms and to align them with the image, but also because the farmers/characters acknowledge the presence of the film-makers, the camera, the film and their own images, themselves and not themselves, here and elsewhere. Most often the characters sit at a table, facing the camera fixed in a central frontal position (there is no angularity) facing them. Sometimes, they address each other; more often, they address Depardon responding to his questions and in so doing address the camera whose view frames them from its fixed position, defining the borders of the shot and the distance between camera and subject. There is little if any ‘point of view’. All shots are at once ‘objective’ by their fixity and ‘subjective’ by the clarity and presence of the mise en scène, the artifice of theatre (which always invokes a spectator), and, it might be added, the disturbance in the everyday of the farm and its family, of the real, provoked by Depardon and Nougaret’s presence and the recording, the image-making in their kitchens choosing to whom to speak, who will listen, who will enter and who exit. To this extent, the film is stage-managed and Depardon an auteur. It is the film’s fictional side.

On the other hand, the conversations, the gestures of the farmers have not been rehearsed, are not scripted, not dictated, nor their relations and words to each other. There is no attempt to illustrate words spoken or images pictured by these words nor are the words particularly dramatic or linked to the images (the absence of points of view, of sharp angles, of a varied frame, of counter-shots), that is, the film does not offer, nor do the words, an ‘interpretation’, a weighting or hierarchy. In this regard, like Depardon, the film is mute despite all the words spoken. This ‘side’ of the film belongs to a tradition of cinéma direct much admired by Depardon (Robert Wiseman). It is essentially improvised within a preset mise en scène. Neither Depardon nor Nougaret, are aware in advance of what will be said and to where what is said might lead. This is the ‘documentary’ side of the film, nevertheless encased in a road movie (fictional) where each pause at a farm introduces with a new cast of characters or is a return to former group, each pause a rhyme with the others including those in earlier chapters. By so doing the film and its stories (of characters and place and time) are extended or resumed.

The farmers as farmers are in the Cévennes and subject to it and as characters are in the images of these and images of themselves and in such a way as to resemble a Rivette film whose characters are caught and held by the intrigues and plots of their own invention or by circumstances out of their control, exactly the situation of the small farmers of the Cévennes narrating their own helplessness and inability to ‘move’, to get out of their reality and of its image.

The relations and interactions between the ‘documentary’ Profils Paysans and the ‘fiction’ Profils Paysans are incessant and though distinct, are so only temporarily. Their boundaries shift and are porous. One becomes the other and vice versa. Rivette, by encouraging improvisation and then locking it into place so that improvisation determines the circumstances that come next, the improvised is a force and a limitation and can become a trap as if fiction lies in wait for the characters (and the actors who invent them). This Rivettian notion and practice echoes the cinema of Howard Hawks whose films Rivette wrote about with great admiration, where characters are caught and confined and in what seem impossible situations. It also echoes and perhaps, more essentially, the cinema of Renoir.

I would like to speculate, though I have no evidence to support it, that Depardon-Nougaret are aware of such connections (they do live in Paris). Not only can one associate between them (Renoir to Depardon, for example, especially since Renoir – like Rivette – nitiates a play between theatre and artifice on the one hand, and film, illusion and reality on the other, but these ‘other’ films function to interpret and ‘read’ other films still, like those of Depardon, however distant and unlikely they may seem, as Godard does in his films composed by resonances, citations, translations, transformations, transpositions (Alphaville is a permutation of John Ford’s The Searchers, for example) while superimposed associations inform each other (and the audience).

Insofar as Depardon and Nougaret take part in their films, the recording of sound and the shooting of the film are ‘real’ presences, and like the farmers, they too are actors, who enter the fictional-documentary space of the film from a real-fictional space outside of it where they organise the mise en scène, but as a setting for improvisation and spontaneity (by themselves, by the camera, by the ‘actors’), a staging of documentary until the staging itself as a performance not what is staged becomes paramount and to the point where the long takes and fixed camera reveal their presence and gestures, are devices to see and hear more precisely in a space configured for encounters and reflections, for the conjunction not only of Depardon to Nougaret, but Depardon-Nougaret to the farmers of the Cévennes, reality to fiction, actuality to memory, the farms at Lozère and the Ardèche to the farm of Garet (un bout de cette cour), to the childhood of Depardon, to his parents and to these farmers and all set at a just distance to be observed of closeness to be shared. Profils Paysans is an instrument to return home and to oneself and to bring cinema to the Cévennes.


It is tempting (and the temptation is usually not resisted) to see in the film-maker Depardon, the shadow of the photographer Depardon. The evidence is in the testimonial, evidential, documentary aspects of his films, the long takes, the immobile camera, the frontality and the centrality of figures, a certain stillness, as if his films, among other things, belong to portraiture. Depardon, however, will have none of this.

Just as his photography is opposed to photo-journalism, so it is opposed to the cinema. The fact that both photography and cinema can be placed together because of their apparently similar views of duration and because both can be thought of as ‘documentary’, both ‘record’ what is set before it, what matters to Depardon is time. The long sequence shot is used not because it is on the side of photography, but because “il vient de mes origines paysannes” (“it comes from my rural origins”),[6] best exemplified perhaps in the lyricism of La vie moderne, of autumn twilight and the dead leaves of memory like the gathering up of moments of love, regret and melancholy, Les feuilles mortes, Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert, Raymond Depardon and Gabriel Fauré. Profils Paysans is a love song and an elegy.


[1] Jean-Michel Frodon, Entretien avec Raymond Depardon et Claudine Nougaret + Jean-Pierre Beauviala. Cahiers du cinéma. n638 octobre 2008. pp. 10-17.
[2] Raymond Depardon et Alain Bergala, New York. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma 2006. p. 34.
[3] Ibid p. 39.
[4] Raymond Depardon, Afrique(s). Paris: Editions Point 2010.
[5] Raymond Depardon, Errance. Paris: Editions du Seuil 2000. p. 86.
[6]Jean- Michel Frodon, op. cit. p. 17.

Created on: Sunday, 7 November 2010

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →