Nicolas Philibert: Every Little Thing

Here, the first right is the right to roam. Nicolas Philibert, the acclaimed French documentary filmmaker, largely known for capturing the trivia of the closed worlds (i.e. In the Land of the Deaf, Animals – see MoMA series on his films: “Nicolas Philibert: The Extraordinary Ordinary”), this time pushed the gate of the progressive psychiatric clinic La Borde. Nestled in the vicinity of the sunlit Loire Valley, the film, succintly dubbed as Every Little Thing, portrays the every day life at La Borde, its trivial goings-on, loneliness and feebleness. Yet, there is room for moments of joy and laughter. Set over the summer of 1995, Every Little Thing follows the residents and staff of the La Borde psychiatric clinic as they set out to stage, what has now become a tradition, a fête production of a theatrical play. This year, they mount Witold Gombrowicz’s absurdist classic ‘Operette’.

The film opens with the scene of a woman, alone in a wide shot, singing a piece from the opera ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, “Mortal silence. Vain hope. What a torment. […] I succumb to my suffering,” she sings apropos as if Christoph Gluck himself had composed it for her. This immediate, somewhat disorienting immersion into the world of La Borde, takes place without an introduction or a context. The slow pacing seems especially fitting for this milieu. Its natural-lit outdoor cinematography appears idyllic and even a tad utopian.

In the following scene, we see a series of alienated body plans wandering in the green space. As we watch them roam, we are suspended in a state of unease and discomfort. Captives of their own bodies, their movements are rowdy and uncoordinated – they are unbridled misfits, displaced, repressed of drive, and rendered to vacillating and haphazard convulsions. Master at finding the right balance between sound and silence in all of his films, in Every Little Thing Philibert too deftly employs silence to signal the storytelling tone. Given the environment, the long silent takes now seem to be rather disturbing than peaceful. Agitated by the wind and trees, the life of its own nature seems to have found a

relief to the agony of the troubled souls. Yet, they do not stagnate, they grow freely, at their own pace and in all directions.

“[…] Scattered, lost. […] But who can tell? Who can tell what? […] Bizarre forms, demented shapes. I don’t know, I don’t understand, I don’t comprehend. Motionless, dazed, confused. […]” As the patients recite the lines from the ‘Operette’ with vigor and anxiety, this Polish absurdist comedy from the mid-60s and its distortive dreamwork seem ideal for La Borde. Caught in the nervous tics and disrupted diction, Michel, one of the long-term patients who regularly stays at the clinic since 1969, alike his fellows, chooses the temporary safety of the art world. He feels protected by the narrow confines of the fictional world of the ‘Operette’, where “the totally illogical lines comfort him.” Embraced by the tranquil woods of the Loire Valley, the La Borde asylum alleges art as a sanctuary and repose, serving both as an act of catharsis and that of defiance.

Above and beyond the theater, Philibert pursues no spectacular shots bestowing the folklore of madness. Neither does he try to encrust the film with new twists and turns. In fact, the film is constructed within a rather basic narrative pattern that eschews an adherence to any complexity of a latent plot or drama. Nevertheless, the timeline tracing the preparation for the play, the final performance, and the aftermath lends itself a narrative cohesion. Obstinately true to his style, the legato unhurried pace gives time to be attentive to the protagonists and their everyday doings. Once we embrace the slow rhythm and gradually get comfortable with it, we find ourselves immersed in these micro-moments that otherwise would have gotten lost in the momentum of the every day life. As the simple atcs unfold in a non-narrated manner, we see people reveal themselves in unpredictable ways. The scattered mosaic of moments is poetically undercut in a complexity of patches – all rendered with a lucent beauty. Yet, when that beauty slips in, it is almost always broken.

Be it, in the garden of La Borde, where a haggard patient strives to walk up to a shrub, rubbing his forehead as if to mollify the unbearable thought that hit his head; or at the art club, where a patient tries to draw the face of another patient, pauses in a moment of panic with words, “I am afraid to miss…” but finally cedes into a grin, overwhelming her suffering – behind these small moments, there is a lot at stake. It is riveting how little can say a lot about people: a stare, a gesture, a sigh, even a smile. Such moments of intimacy resonates with the viewer eminently. It uncovers something essential and profound about the human existence. Yet, what exactly it uncovers is up to the viewer. The film does not contain much commentary, laying itself wide open to the reading. Philibert’s ambition of being “a bit of an anti-Michael Moore” shows its vestiges here as he avoids to give any answers or to “think for the viewer”. Instead, he gives the viewer something to think about.

True to his style, Philibert is not voyeuristic in approaching his subjects. He says, “this film is not about people, but with and because of them.” Throughout the film, it becomes evident that the protagonists are well aware of being filmed. It can be seen through their verbal interventions or gazes directed to the camera. But these scenes don’t end up on the floor of the cutting room. Philibert says, “It doesn’t bother me that they look directly toward the camera. I don’t try to make them forget my presence. It is a matter of making myself accepted, not forgotten.”

As Philibert makes himself accepted in the La Bodre asylum, so do we. Indeed, as we voluntarily immerse ourselves in their world, we become almost as them – mad, too. By gradually taking us into the impenetrable madness, this cinematic vigil makes us re-work our view on madness and extend the degree of ambivalence toward the notion of normality. The film is very shrewd in bringing to focus the fluidity and dynamics of the borderline between madness and sanity. In Every Little Thing, anxiety and fragility are never far behind the laughter, spontaneity, and liveliness. “You are laughing at the rubbish I say. Aren’t you? You are totally crazy,” one of the patients utters. Different expressions race back and forth over his face. His smiles come in succession like waves breaking on the surface of a little lake. “You are nuts, you are completely nuts! […] That poor nurse is crazy. The staff need care. That could happen, you know. […] True, if we get care, no one will look after you.”

Indeed, as all visible differences between the patients and the care-givers are removed and patients are liberated to actively participate in running the facility, it seems hard to distinguish between those who need care. The care-givers do not wear white coats and doors have handles on both sides. Who manages the switchboard, who answers the phone calls, who prepares the meals – each one, notwithstanding their mental status, is a member of the La Borde little community, a microcosm of the society riven by differences and tension. All are in the same boat. Within this closed community, Philibert manages to create intense feelings of both community energy and extreme solitude. He observes the patients both when they are collaborating and when they are alone, estranged and off in their own universe.

As we hear tragic arias, soul-baring confessions, and moving recollections, the film without a condescending pity or soaring valorization, brings an illuminating account of a world that is outside of most of our daily experiences. Philibert approaches his subjects with a deep but unforced empathy that does not exoticize or disown them. In this radical otherness, we see our pallid reflection, we find part of ourselves. The film does not offer an antiodite for our fear of otherness, the otherness would still keep leaking into our psyche. Profoundly disturbing and intensely personal, the last sentence of the long-term patient Michel both moves and terrifies us, “We are here among ourselves. And you are among us, too, now.”

France, 1997, 105 mins.

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Sevara Pan
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