Gideon Koppel's documentary Sleep Furiously begins with a town crier in full regalia walking through open countryside, two mutts trotting at his heels. If you wanted to be pessimistic or disparaging, you might see this image as a metaphor for a certain kind of art-cinema practitioner: a lonely figure trudging through desolate terrain, a few dogged followers tagging along behind.
And perhaps this might not be an entirely inaccurate description of Gideon Koppel's position: in the current climate of cinema, Sleep Furiously is about as marginal a film as you can imagine. After all, according to the popcorn-culture worldview, cinema is meant to be loud, colourful, a distraction from reality, a perpetual headlong plummet towards the new. All the more reason, then, to cherish non-conformist outbursts of quietness such as this.
Koppel's subject is Trefeurig, a hill-farming community in mid-Wales. There's nothing remotely extraordinary, it seems, about this place, and that's what interests Koppel, whose German refugee parents settled there. Koppel's interest is in catching the everyday, even the mundane, but he does so with extraordinary eye, and ear, and patience.
There's no commentary, and no narrative except the routine story of a year's passing. The director's mother goes for a walk with her dog, a mobile librarian hands out Dodie Smith and 100 Great Curries, a choir sings, schoolchildren rattle cans, calves and pigs are born, meetings held, commemorative photos taken. Comedy flourishes in odd moments, with the film's subjects showing an eccentricity that's matter-of-fact rather than flamboyant: taking a stuffed owl to be refurbished, Mrs Koppel recalls the taxidermist's original instructions: "Freeze it and when it's really frozen, put it in the post."
People cope with simple troubles, often caused by the unpredictability of animals: a man is driven to distraction by some very uncooperative sheep (although it may be his own fault, an observer suggests, for spooking them with his yellow hat). Things are occasionally made remarkably what people say in passing: "like rugby players in a scrum", someone comments of a litter of piglets suckling.
Koppel's own camerawork shows that he's a painter as much as a film-maker. Sometimes, he gives us the outright sublime: a tree in a field of winter white; swirling rain and a glint of light on water. But he also has a knack for framing an image around an incidental detail: a dog is positioned in just the right spot to give us a pricelessly comic shot of the creature gazing, with apparent astonishment, at a wool truck vanishing into the distance.
On a hillside stretching across the screen, a distant flock of sheep parades across the top of the screen in a white dotted line. Then another line of dots appears at the bottom of the screen. And then the very last white dot in the top row suddenly turns tail and heads back in the opposite direction: nature provides its own subtle sight gags, if, like Koppel, you're prepared to watch and wait long enough.
Sleep Furiously might come across as an arcane, old-fashioned study, but there are bursts of energy to bear out the title (which alludes to a sample "impossible" sentence devised by the linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky). The most self-consciously arty moment is a literal illustration: a speeded-up image of a small child thrashing jerkily in its slumber. But the film bears out the way that a village too, dozy as it seems, is alive with energy if you look closely and patiently at its people, its manners, its rhythms.
Koppel's film belongs to a tradition of cinematic ruralism that has somewhat fallen out of repair in Britain but still flourishes in France. Take Raymond Depardon's ongoing series of documentaries, of which the latest, Modern Life, came out here recently; or Nicolas Philibert's art-house hit Etre et Avoir, with which Sleep Furiously shares a French producer (the other executive producer is our own Mike Figgis).
Some viewers might feel that Sleep Furiously is purveying too cosy and reassuring an image of rural life. There is, admittedly, much talk in it about the old days, about things changing for the worse; we become aware of a creeping sense of extinction hovering over the village, whose school is about to be closed. The one false note is a local man spouting awful sub-Pam Ayres doggerel complaining that a new metal signpost isn't as good as the old wooden one. But all these elements of regret also reveal an anger and a determination to preserve at least fragments of a disappearing order: that sort of spirit doesn't necessarily have to be seen as conservative nostalgia. I'd hate you to think I was recommending this film only as a detox after Star Trek and Wolverine, although it is that too. But more than that, Sleep Furiously is a portrait of a place, of a communal state of mind, and of a film-maker's idiosyncratic sensibility. It's a thing of quiet, off-beat, tender poetry, and I defy you not to warm to it.
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