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Back To Normandy
cast: Anne Borel, Claude Hebert, and Nicole Picard

director: Nicolas Philibert

113 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 2/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
In 1835, a young man named Pierre Riviere slit the throats of his mother, his sister and his brother. Initially the boy claimed that he was carrying out God's wishes but later he admitted that he committed the murders in order to free his father from the clutches of a woman who was draining the life out of him. The children were killed for being on her side. In, and of, itself this crime is little different from the millions of murders that have taken place in the intervening 170 years. It is just another squalid story of emotional dysfunction and unhappiness leading to violence and the destruction of a family.

However, once incarcerated for his crime Pierre Riviere took it upon himself to write a memoir detailing the precise reasons for his crime and the life he led up to his arrest. Riviere's trial was also the first French trial to include psychiatric evidence. These two facts attracted the attention of the philosopher and intellectual historian Michel Foucault who assembled the memoir and published it as a sociological snapshot of 1830s' France but also of the early stages of a relationship between medicine and state power that would see countless people unjustly locked away for transgressing society's rules. This book (published in 1974), named for the opening line of the memoir, Moi Pierre Riviere, Ayant Egorge Ma Mere, Ma Soeur et Mon Frere... (literally, 'I, Pierre Riviere, having slit the throats of my mother, my sister and my brother...') would later by made into a 1976 film by Rene Allio. One of the assistant directors on that film was Nicolas Philibert (best known for 2000's Etre et Avoir) who decided, 30 years later, for Back To Normandy (aka: Retour en Normandie) to track down the actors who made the original film.

One of Allio's more interesting decisions on the original film was to cast the film with non-professional actors who lived in the area of Normandy where the killings actually happened. By choosing to cast professionals only as members of the bourgeoisie and ruling classes, Allio not only effectively returned part of the region's history to its population (after it was purloined by philosophers) but also created the impression that the agricultural working and lower middle-classes are a tribe or subculture of their own; a subculture that can only ever be perceived from the outside by trendy Parisian directors and actors.

This desire to give the people a voice also runs through Back To Normandy, as Philibert checks in with a number of different actors, discovering what effect being in the film had on their lives. This gives the film a similar feel to the long running British documentary Seven Up!, which checks in with a group of people every seven years charting the peaks and valleys of their lives. However, as with the early Seven Up! films, Back To Normandy has a rather aloof and anthropological feel to it not helped by the fact that all of the former actors speak warmly of the time they spent making the film. The fact that the interviewees are all clearly grateful to Philibert results in the film having a power balance that is actually rather uncomfortable.

This power balance is not helped by Philibert's decision to pepper the film with images from the life cycle of a pig. First we see it being born, then we see it squealing in a pen and being fed, then we see it being hit on the head with a big hammer and pumping out its life's blood onto the floor before being cut in half and hauled off by a smirking butcher. One can't help but feel that these disturbing vignettes are partly intended as a commentary on life in the countryside, in much the same way as the book and film once were.

Neither is the film's power balance aided by the fact that Philibert seems frankly quite uninterested in the details of the lives of the people he visits. Each interview is short and largely focussed on how great and life-changing an opportunity Philibert once gave them by casting them, while making no effort to draw any conclusions from any of these interviews, or even asking any particularly probing questions.

The result is a documentary that feels smug and self-serving as the great film director feigns an interest in the lives of a few worthless yokels who praise him before, presumably, being butchered like hogs by the grim reaper. Clearly Philibert is a great man... by casting them he gave meaning to the lives of some miserable peasants who 30 years later are still tugging their forelocks. The film's smugness is also clear from the impressionistic photographic style that is full of long shots of people standing around or rain falling on a puddle as if to say 'wow... this really makes you think doesn't it?' Except that it does not... at all.

Advertising is the art of using the brain's hard-wired reactions to trick us into associating one thing with something completely unrelated to it. For example, if we see a car advert with loads of friends driving around having fun our brain (having evolved to deal with small communities living in caves, not billion-strong global villages) tells us that we should buy that car in order to be popular. If an advertiser shows us a young lady fellating a chocolate bar, our brain associates chocolate with sex. If we can be manipulated into thinking that cars make you popular and chocolate makes you likely to be blown by a model, is it not reasonable to think that we can be tricked into thinking that a documentary is clever?

It certainly works in the world of academic publishing as in 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal tricked a cultural studies journal into publishing a meaningless paper by skilfully mimicking the style and talking points common to cultural studies papers at the time. The Back To Normandy DVD includes some footage of Philibert being interviewed at the BFI and when asked to talk about what the film is about, his answers are astonishingly literal. Why did he include footage of his father at the end of the film? Well... he found the footage and rather liked it. Why did he make a film about returning to meet a bunch of old actors? Well... he liked the idea of going back and meeting them and thought it might be worthwhile making a film about the journey.

An interesting case study is the film's final scene featuring some soundless images of Philibert's dead father who had a bit part in the original film. Philibert places the footage right at the end of the film, in the space normally occupied by a film's emotional climax or final twist in the tail. As such we are encouraged to think of this footage as being particularly important but having now watched the film twice, it is in no way clear to me what relation, if any, Philibert's relationship with his father has to do with anything. Indeed, in the interview the critic reacts to the footage and suggests that the film has themes involving fatherhood but the critic does not make it clear what these themes might be and, when quizzed on them Philibert merely says that he liked the footage and intentionally left the sound off in order to make the ending feel more dream-like. In other words, the footage serves no wider intellectual agenda, it is simply there and it is positioned in such a way as to make it look important, prompting critics to assume that there's something intelligent being said about fathers.

These kinds of tactics are used again and again in certain kinds of cinema and TV. The Sopranos is famous for long and seemingly pointless scenes. For example, consider the series' final scene in a diner; the scene lasts a long time, nothing much gets said, some music plays and it ends ambiguously. However, because our brains are wired to look for patterns and significance in what is effectively the meaningless chaotic noise of existence, we want to fill in the blanks. Why that song? Why is Meadow so slow parking the car? Is Tony dead? Do those onion rings represent something? Art house directors have long known the effect of cinematic ambiguity and non-sequitur scenes; our brain cannot help but fill in the blanks and, once those blanks are filled in, we attribute them not to ourselves but to what we are watching. When we are out walking in the woods at night, there is a real evolutionary advantage in assuming that those shadows are a predator rather than our imagination and the same neurological features can be deployed by directors to make us think their films are more intelligent than they are.

The difference between the great directors and the likes of Nicolas Philibert is that the greats deploy their ambiguity and box of tricks with a grand plan in mind. Philibert deploys that same box of tricks in order to pull the wool over our eyes in the same manner as an advertising director selling us diarrhoea medication.

Back To Normandy is a sham. It is an intellectually vacuous and profoundly dishonest piece of work whose rare moments of authorial intent stink unpleasantly of self-indulgence and upper middle class smugness. It is an utter waste of time.
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