Nicholas Philibert, whose film On the Adamant won the Golden Bear at the 73rd Berlinale on Saturday, has made a lifetime commitment to observational documentary, moving between interviews and long, patient takes of his subjects pursuing what it is that they do. The best known of these is Etre et Avoir (2002), which followed a year in the life of a tiny rural school where the single teacher – kindly but exacting, in the French manner – taught several grades at once. Thanks to the magnetism of this committed teacher – and of his delightful enfants, of course – Etre et Avoir became an unlikely but enduring arthouse hit.
Philibert has also cast his watchful eye over nurses in training, a day in the life of a radio station and a night in an urban menagerie. He never appears himself, as far as I remember – though, given that he has been ploughing this furrow since 1978, this isn’t a reliable recollection – but his presence is palpable as a guiding sensibility. These are films that, taken together, constitute a humanist project, even if he makes this explicit only in apposite quotes introducing each film and brief afterwords telling us where we have just been and adding a few remarks about what makes it so worthwhile that make you wish we heard a little more from him.
In On the Adamant, we are on a psychiatric hospital houseboat that rocks soothingly on the River Seine. The boat, made of wood with great shutters and decks covered in potted plants, was purpose-built for day patients in 2019. Inside, there are spaces for workshops and classes – art, music, dancing, cooking – offered to patients dealing with a variety of very different pathologies. One young man looks fixedly below the camera’s eyeline as he describes how other people’s noise upsets him. Frederic, an aging but dashing bohemian, speaks lucidly about art before sharing that he and his brother are reincarnations of Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. A chubby middle-aged man remembers how a policeman told him that if he actually murdered anyone, he would go to jail for 30 years. Lucky he didn’t have a gun at the time, he reflects.
So one is autistic, one is delusional, the last one is paranoid. Maybe, maybe not. Philibert doesn’t give diagnoses or assign labels. Why would he, when the patients have their own, much more earthy descriptions of their afflictions? “If I didn’t have my meds. I start raving,” says Francois, “I think I’m Jesus surrounded by little birds.” He has been sick, he says, since he was 18. “And I’m sick now,” he says firmly. A melancholy African woman recalls her son being put into foster care when he was 5. He is now 16. She visits him with a caseworker once a month. “Things are better now,” she says. “At first, when I went to see him, I couldn’t utter a word.”
Activities range from sewing to jam-making to keeping the books for the coffee bar, which the patients do themselves. Balancing these accounts takes time and often argument, but time is the one thing everyone here has. After their art sessions, they show one another their work and discuss at length what they were trying to do. The film club, which has been running for 10 years, is planning a film festival of classics including Fellini’s 8½ and one of the adaptations of Jack London’s White Fang.
By no means everyone we see speaks – some are morose, one is only seen on the boat’s deck, endlessly twirling in time to some private dance score – but the clientele here, even those with no teeth who look as if they have spent quite a few years, possibly including last night, on the street, notably are artistically inclined. In his remarks at the end, Philibert suggests that there must be places in the world that have space for poetry. Poetry is definitely top of the pops on the good ship Adamant.
It does seem unlikely as a random group of the mentally ill. Of course, since Philibert does no explanatory interviews with the professionals, he can’t spend too much time with people who can’t communicate or are more markedly disturbed. The cast also might be essentially self-selecting: It makes sense that those who want to perform for the film will be the natural performers, the ones who already sing and recite their own poems. And of course, he wants to engage us. His technique entirely depends for success on our response to his subjects, so he wants to find the ones with the best stories.
In the end, however, for all his film’s decency and sympathy, the people on this beautiful hospital boat are not appealing in the way the children in the one-room school were. On the contrary, these are people you might move to avoid on a train, which perhaps is the point. For a couple of hours we share a carriage with them and find that they are poignant, complex and often fun. You wish all of them and their lovely wooden boat the very best of luck. But, in the end, I was relieved when I realized we’d reached the final stop. I was looking forward to getting off.
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