Gilles Perret’s “La Ferme des Bertrand” is something of a rarity in French film: a tale of rural success for three generations of a family of dairy farmers. Its release next week has acquired added resonance as farmers across France rise up in protest at taxes, costs and regulations they say are killing their livelihoods.
In his seminal trilogy “Profils paysans”, Raymond Depardon followed octogenarian farmers and herdsmen scraping a living in remote areas blighted by the rural exodus. Others have investigated the damage wrought by intensive farming and the agrochemical industry, with their trail of livelihoods wrecked and family farms pushed into bankruptcy.
French farmers now number fewer than half a million, a fraction of their postwar total. But their fading world still occupies an outsized place in the national psyche, infused with nostalgia for France’s rural past and tinged with guilt at the hardship experienced by so many.
“La Ferme des Bertrand”, which opens in French cinemas next week, tells a different story: that of a dairy farm’s successful transition to modernity under three generations of the same family.
Its aim is not to belittle or ignore the struggle of others, says Perret, who wrote the film with his partner Marion Richoux, but to showcase an agriculture that is both viable and appealing, and deeply respectful of the environment.
Economic success, human failure
Early on in the film, we meet a trio of shirtless brothers smashing stones with sledgehammers to build the foundation of their future milking parlour. Their lean, muscular bodies hint at an austere life of back-breaking toil and frugality.
The black-and-white footage is taken from a 1972 documentary shot by France’s national broadcaster in the Alpine hamlet where Perret grew up, a few steps away from the dairy farm run by the Bertrand brothers.
Twenty-five years later, Perret borrowed a camera to film the same trio as they prepared to pass the farm on to their nephew and his wife. He resumed filming another quarter of a century later, with a third generation of Bertrands now at the helm, before merging the three epochs into a fascinating chronicle of half a century of rural resilience and adaptation.
When they pass the baton in 1997, the three brothers leave behind a healthy business but at a steep cost: all three have remained bachelors, casting aside their personal aspirations to stay tied to their land and cattle throughout a lifetime of personal sacrifice.
As the mustachioed André, the film’s standout character, says in a sobering reflection, their story is one of “economic success and human failure”.
It takes a third generation of the Bertrand family to finally strike a healthier balance between work and family life, aided by an impressive array of machines that has changed the nature of their work beyond recognition.
“The youngsters barely do any manual work nowadays,” mutters André, hunched over his stick, still soldiering on in the film’s most recent footage. “But they sure know a thing or two about machines.”
A protected bubble
André and his brothers provide many of the film’s most endearing scenes, whether expertly wielding a sickle, massaging a chicken, or calling each of their one hundred cows by name.
But Perret’s film does not indulge in nostalgia for a bygone era. It opens with a shot of a brand-new milking machine, which the retiring Hélène, from the second generation of the Bertrand family, jokingly introduces as her “replacement” – one that will make her son’s work less tiring and repetitive.
The intent is to provoke viewers, says Perret, introducing a form of farming that is in step with society and with the technological evolutions that are shaping our world.
“In many other sectors, mechanisation has led to job losses and a deterioration in working conditions,” he says. “In this case, it appears robots can be of great help to humans, taking over some of the most exhausting tasks in a profession that requires around-the-clock presence, 365 days a year.”
For all the talk of success, the film makes no secret of the physical toll on the Bertrands. André’s two brothers died just weeks into retirement. Their nephew only made it to 50, leaving Hélène with three children and a farm to run.
The fact that the farm powered on owes much to its privileged location in the protected cheesemaking region of Haute-Savoie, home to Reblochon cheese.
The designation means their milk is sold at twice the price of milk from the plains or industrial farms. They effectively operate in a bubble, protected from the market forces that leave countless other farmers at the mercy of volatile prices they have no control over.
Toiling with a purpose
In the 25 years since he first filmed the farm, Perret has built up a large body of socially-minded work, sometimes teaming up with the muckraking journalist-turned-politician François Ruffin to denounce the worst effects of unbridled capitalism. His films focus on the human impact of economic and societal transformations, shining a light on spaces of resistance to the coercive forces of globalised economies.
He says growing up alongside the Bertrand family has helped shape his outlook and his interests.
“In all my films I’ve tried to question our relationship to work, the meaning of what we do, how we can improve conditions, and what can be done to preserve our environment,” he says. “These are all things that are at the heart of their lives.”
In order to qualify for the Reblochon label, the farm is bound to strict guidelines which rule out non-natural foods for the cattle and require the animals to be out grazing in the mountain pastures for a minimum of 150 days a year.
“It doesn’t quite qualify as organic farming, but it comes very close,” says Perret, stressing the Bertrands’ role in shaping and preserving the pristine environment around the hamlet he still lives in – both a gift of nature and a legacy of their painstaking labour.
“The money we make is for living,” says one of the brothers midway through the film as he soaks in the view, resting on his scythe after a day of toil. “The real satisfaction comes from keeping our nature clean and healthy.”
“La Ferme des Bertrand” (89min) opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, January 31.
France’s farming protests
French farmers have blocked roads, junctions and motorways in protest at pay, low food prices and environmental rules they say are ruining their livelihoods, in an echo of protests taking place in other EU countries.
With convoys of tractors advancing on Paris and threatening to blockade the capital, France’s new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced key concessions on Friday including an end to rising fuel costs and the simplification of regulations.
But the main farming union, the FNSEA, described the measures as insufficient, vowing to maintain its mobilisation until the government meets all of its demands.