The Nicolas Philibert Collection review
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A great box of docs...
The Nicolas Philibert Collection
Last Monday (27th June), a box set was released that contains four brilliant cinematic works. No, it wasn’t the much anticipated Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Quadrilogy’, rushed to DVD before the movie has had time to fail at the cinema. It was in fact a collection of films by French documentary maker Nicolas Philibert. And what wonderful films they are!
I can’t admit to knowing anything about Monsieur Philibert before watching these films but I can certainly say that I now want to see more. I set about choosing which of the four to watch first and somewhat predictably settled on the feature I was most familiar with (i.e. the most recent one that has had at least some press coverage); Nénette.
At 70 minutes, Nénette is the shortest in the collection, but that isn’t to say it is lacking in any area other than length. Except for commentary, action, narrative and other more traditional movie traits. However, the director’s choice to tell the story of the titular orangutan by focusing on the reactions and opinions of anonymous spectators and carers, works remarkably well. As the camera follows Nénette and her fellow orangutans around the cage, we hear families, groups and couples discussing everything from the way the primates move to more philosophical debates such as how living her entire life in captivity may have affected Nénette. Together the audience, both in and out of the film, witness what appear to be looks of boredom, longing and most notably, sadness behind her eyes. Yet even as we are told by the voice of an off-screen carer that orangutans cannot display emotions through their eyes, we get a sense that Nénette wants our help, or to be our friend.
It is the film maker’s skill that as an audience, by the 70th minute, we are able to feel such emotion and attachment towards an animal that not so long ago was completely unknown to us. The lingering of the camera on the faces of the orangutans, and the inquisitive and often loving voices that speak from behind the camera, are sure to stick with viewers long after the film is over.
La Ville Louvre (1990)
The second film I chose to watch explains in its press release that it will reveal ‘a secret world of private chambers, miles of underground passages and vast reserves…’ I love the excitement of exploring secret passages and so leading up to the viewing that was what I focused on. Unfortunately by the time I sat down to view the film I had managed to build the film up into some sort of Goonies-esque action adventure set in the underground world of the Louvre and what I got was the polar opposite.
La Ville Louvre, or to give it its English title, Louvre City, is the earliest of Philibert’s films in this collection and documents the huge amount of work involved in preparing exhibitions after renovation work in the 1980s. We are shown just how much care and attention is devoted to each individual piece and where they need to be placed within the museum. The camera follows staff members as they carry out their day to day duties including one lady who walks the miles of underground tunnels to find the colleague who is dedicating her entire life to restoring one tiny piece of art. This is just one of many memorable sequences in the film, others of which include the incredible feats the staff have to endure such as the transportation, unravelling and hanging of a gigantic painting.
Again, Philibert uses no interviews or commentary, instead allowing the images to tell their own story, much like the paintings do in the galleries. This is perhaps a case of the film reflecting its subject matter, becoming a part of it.
Être et avoir (2002)
Thirdly came the film that made Philibert’s name, Être et avoir (To Be and to Have), and rightly so. Compared with the films previously mentioned this has a much more cinematic feel to it. Whether it is due to the picturesque setting and the occasional tracking shots or a difference in style I am as yet undecided. Needless to say this was my favourite.
Philibert allows the story (a tiny provincial French school and its few pupils are looked after by one solitary teacher) to tell itself. With astonishingly disarming results. Following teacher Georges Lopez and his class throughout the course of one school year we get an incredible insight into the care he has for the children, the amount of time he devotes to their every need and the bonds he manages to build with even the more unruly kids.
Watching the children develop under his control through teaching, counselling and generally being at their beck and call is at times funny (teaching the children how to bake) and at others incredibly heart wrenching (witness the goodbyes at the end of term). There is no clever editing, the likes of which should die a death along with reality shows like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and only once is there an interview with anyone - Georges explains that he will be retiring in a year or so and as an audience we can only imagine how the children will cope without him. This documentary caught me completely unawares and I love it even more for that. It is absolutely deserving of all the nominations and awards it garnered upon release on 2003.
Retour en Normandie (2007)
Finally I found myself confronted with a work entirely different from those that came before. Retour en Normandie, or Return to Normandy, is a very personal film for Philibert as he sets out to track down and talk to the people who were involved with a film he worked on back in the seventies. This time, as we follow the director’s own story, we also hear him speak, narrating the whole documentary.
The original film was shot on location in Normandy and featured local farmers and their families as the actors. Together they depicted the true story of a young boy who murdered his mother, father and sister and through the new interviews we get an understanding of what it was like to play these characters. We also hear of the difficulties the production faced both logistically and monetarily and the challenges faced trying to track down the lead actor
However, it all adds up to what I believe is the least interesting of the works, despite the prevalence of facts given to us in the form of voiceover. It is mostly the subject matter that makes it less accessible than the other three films, as it is such a personal journey and there is no real reason given as to why we should be interested in Philibert’s search for the actors. However, that is not to say it is awful, indeed, there are a few really fascinating moments including the hunt for original lead actor Claude Hébert and the consequent information as to his whereabouts.
Overall, I have to say that I shall be eagerly anticipating the next Nicolas Philibert documentary over and above the next Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock offering! If you want to be fascinated, meet wonderful characters and have your heart touched, go and get yourself The Nicolas Philibert Collection.
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