-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
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
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.