The Works and the Days: a staggering documentary-river of beauty [critique]

Fascinating in its appeasement although haunted by death, this 8:17 film on the life of a peasant couple in Japan invites you to let yourself be enveloped by the power of cinema.

In the cinema, as we know, everything is a matter of duration. Time reinvented, fragmented – also extensible – draws a physical and mental space trying to incarnate itself on the screen. This postulate, which applies to all creations made of moving images and sounds, can sometimes become the very object of a film, better still, its raison d’être. Some will say that all the great masterpieces are in reality only reflections on this relationship to time on which a story – which has become incidental – would be grafted. What says for example Cold sweat of Hitchcock, if not the obsession of a man for a mental image of which he seeks to recreate “in real life” the mechanics? In this, the title of this documentary-monster (8h17), Works and Days, is a program. It induces labor and invites patience. You don’t come in here with both feet. If the two directors – the American CWWinter and the Swedish Anders Edström – have set themselves the program of involving the spectator body and soul in the “experience” of the film, this supposes letting him take his marks without rushing him too much.

Black shots lasting several minutes on which sounds delicately come to rest, a short quote superimposed which tears the darkness before fading away… And suddenly, forms emerge, surge out of nothingness. A corner of greenery, a road, a house, a body leaning towards the ground… Everything appears as a revelation. Something sacred is at stake from the outset. The camera takes the time to record what it sees and watches. The plans are free to breathe, autonomous but belonging to a coherent whole. Each of them leaves a trail behind. By dint of investigating films and series continuously, we would have almost forgotten that it is possible to stop the tap of images or at least to control the flow, to relearn how to be flabbergasted. Rediscovering images arranged with purity and suddenly standing outside the known, although recognized, world. A film like this is a wonderful reminder of that. And the fact that it emerges in the middle of the ambient chaos, where precisely the place of cinema is discussed, makes this somewhat crazy gesture all the more stimulating and relevant.

Works and Days will present itself to the cinema viewer in three parts. We follow here, the time of a year punctuated by the unchanging cycle of the seasons, the life of a couple of Japanese peasants in a small mountainous village in the Kyoto region. The artisanal way of working the land, the gentleness with which everything is apprehended, seem to disconnect from the news of the world. The heroine of the film, Tayaoko Shiojiri, is, in fact, the depository of a know-how and an etiquette that will die with her. The film is also entirely inhabited by death. The health of Tayaoko’s husband is gradually deteriorating. His discreet agony becomes an invisible red thread. In voice-over, Tayaoko sometimes recounts her daily life like a diary, she also delivers soft and reassuring words to this spouse whose progressive disappearance she resigns herself to accepting. No outpouring of feelings, modesty implies restraint. Nothing prefabricated, the two directors managed to capture the naturalness at work. Nature, sovereign, protects men. Here, the majesty of bark, further on, the opulence of foliage, over there, the mystery of a patch of sky. Each element breathes the sensitive. The space where everything is played out is tiny, yet it contains the whole universe. Faced with so much grace, we definitely realize how essential the cinema and the projection room are to our lives. It is thanks to them that we can grasp a fragile beauty which, elsewhere, might have escaped us.

By CW Winter and Anders Edström. Documentary. Duration: 8h17. Released June 22, 2022.

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