Thursday, July 24, 2008

Not a Remake

Back to Normandy
Directed by Nicolas Philibert
July 25-31, 2008
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue

Director Nicolas Philibert
Following To Be and To Have, his sublime documentary about a teacher in the central Auvergne region of France, director Nicolas Philibert travels north for his new film, Back to Normandy.

Ostensibly, Philibert returns to the Normandy region to catch up with members of the local farming community. Many of these people had parts in I, Pierre Rivère, Having Butchered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother, a 1976 film by Rene Allio, on which Philibert served as an assistant. Based on philosopher Michel Foucault’s book about the true story of a peasant who, in 1835, killed his family and then wrote out his confession in well-expressed prose, Allio's film is also being shown at Anthology Film Archives this week.

As anyone familiar with Philibert’s previous work can attest, he is an unassuming master at recording quotidian lives with care and precision -- whether young schoolchildren and their teacher (To Be and to Have), the soundless world of deaf-mutes (In the Land of the Deaf), or workers in the world’s largest museum (Louvre City). Back to Normandy opens with graphic footage of a piglet being born, and later unstintingly shows the dispassionate slaughter of an adult sow.

The director is not simply there to make a “Where Are They Now?” feature about the villagers and farmers who were an important part of Allio’s disturbing film; the structure of Back to Normandy shows a more complex undertaking. There is ample footage from Allio’s film and excerpts from Rivère’s confession and Allio’s on-set diary. All of this, combined with Philibert’s interviews with the locals and his docmentation of their everyday existence, create a transcendent meditation on history and art, memory and madness, life and death.

There are scenes of bemused locals who starred in the film speaking with Philibert about their brief moment in the spotlight, and there’s a poignant aspect to their discussion of such long-ago events. The young man who played the killer is now middle-aged and gray-haired, and it’s surprising to hear about the path he subsequently followed.

The director has an easy way of talking with the locals, and some of them speak candidly about their experiences. One older man, surrounded by his wife and grown-up children, reminisces about the movie, and they good-naturedly kid him about an event that’s become a vague memory. Still, a real sense of pride can be heard in their comments.

Most touching is Philibert’s interview with an elderly woman who fell ill several years ago, went into a coma, and eventually had to re-learn to speak. Hearing her describe her near-death experiences with difficulty, often not being able to find the right words to say, is deeply moving.

At one point, Philibert mentions that his late father played a bit part in Allio’s film and shows a brief clip of him that ended up on the cutting-room floor. As that image freezes, and we realize that Rivère had admitted his love for his father had led him to commit his heinous crimes, we also recognize that this humane cinematic journey has profoundly personal and benevolent implications for its maker.

Originally posted on

No comments: