Nicolas Philibert climbs aboard the titular floating Parisian day centre for this warm documentary

On The Adamant

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘On The Adamant’

Dir. Nicolas Philibert. France/Japan. 2023. 109mins

Moored on the banks of the Seine, the Adamant – a Parisian day centre for people with mental disorders – is a metaphor made concrete. It’s at once free-floating, separate from the city that surrounds it, and, at the same time, at the centre of the metropolis. In other words, it is a haven for people supposedly apart from the rest of humanity, yet whose troubles absolutely embody the fragility and complexity of the human condition.

Waving a flag for the positive possibilities of an empathetic, culture-centred approach to mental care

That’s the theme at the heart of On the Adamant, the latest film from French documentarist Nicholas Philibert, whose works – including In The Land Of The Deaf and Every Little Thing­ ­– have often presented empathetic studies of humanity from the perspective of marginalised communities. While current tastes in documentary may not be as receptive to the non-narrative as in the days when Philibert’s 2002 Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have) was an international success, his engaging and affirmative new film will be warmly appreciated at festivals and on adventurous outlets – anywhere, essentially, where people are interested in discovering other people.

The film was directed by Philibert in collaboration with clinical psychiatrist and psychologist Linda de Zitter, who was also involved in 1997’s Every Little Thing, and who is intermittently glimpsed on screen here. The Adamant, which opened in 2010, is a big boat-like structure, designed in consultation with patients. Inside the centre, which works as a day-time drop-in, different areas function as studios, meeting rooms, spaces for music and dance; there’s also a library, very visibly stocked with volumes of poetry. This is France, after all, and a belief in the centrality of the arts is very manifest at The Adamant – a key aim of which, the end titles note, is to keep the “poetic function” alive.

Those captions apart, there’s no commentary in the film, which substantially comprises individual portraits of Adamant patients, given space to present themselves in their own voices and on their own terms. A middle-aged man named François kicks off the film with a passionate rendition of ‘Human Bomb’, by French rockers Téléphone; later, in an informal moment on deck with psychiatrist Guillaume, he gives a somewhat manic but intensely lucid account of his condition and his views on psychiatry. Similarly articulate, but very much on his own wavelength, a young man explains his sensitivity to ‘negative vibrations’, while another fascinatingly describes his complex mental system of correspondences between things and words, in which, for example, a blue balaclava might evoke the word ‘purée’ and, in turn, thoughts of death. 

Perhaps the most fascinating figure is Frédéric, a laid-back, dandyish man with a remarkable silky voice, who explains how the deaths of Van Gogh and Jim Morrison offer the key to his own family history, and accompanies himself on organ on an inventively rhymed number (“Rêveur ô rêveur, never say never!”) – one of the songs he says are dictated by his unconscious. While Frédéric is one of the people most at ease here, by contrast Catherine is a punk-coiffed elderly bohemian who addresses a meeting about her suggestion of leading t’ai chi classes. Her discourse quickly becomes a digressive outpouring of rage, but one to which the film gives the time it demands, with the patients throughout this film setting their own rhythms.

Philibert and his crew remain invisible presences, except for one moment when charismatic, voluble patient Muriel turns round and quizzes them about their lives. The film is more about character and human presence, as opposed to depicting the overall functioning of this institution, as per the more detached observational approach of the Frederick Wiseman school. Nevertheless, we get a strong sense of The Adamant’s functioning and its values, with arts and culture central as a vehicle for expression and self-realisation, as several patients attest. For cinephile viewers, a mark of this centre’s enlightened approach is that it has a film club showing works by Truffaut, Fellini and Kiarostami. 

A rhetorical note in the closing captions makes it clear that Philibert is proposing The Adamant as something of a utopian ideal for psychiatric practice. There are certainly questions to be asked about whether he might have presented a more critical picture; you wonder whether Philbert filmed any moments of stress or conflict, or scenes showing the difficulties faced by staff – in the daily running of the place, or with funding, for example. But that would have made for a different film, and it’s clear that this one is waving a flag for the positive possibilities of an empathetic, culture-centred approach to mental care.

In keeping with this positive agenda, Philibert, himself heading the camera team, shoots primarily in warm colours, maintaining a sense of this singular structure as a warm haven and literally a safe space. The action stays moored within The Adamant, apart from some lyrical glimpses of a tree-lined quayside, and a brief sequence where patients visit a greengrocer’s to salvage discarded fruit from the bins – which one is tempted to see as a fond nod to a similar practice, as portrayed by Agnès Varda in The Gleaners And I

Production company: TS Productions

International sales: Les Films du Losange

Producers: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto, Céline Loiseau

Cinematography: Nicolas Philibert

Editor: Nicolas Philibert