With ‘Normandy,’ Philibert Returns to the Scene of the Crime

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Nicolas Philibert is best known for his documentary “To Be and to Have,” which chronicles a year in a one-room school in the Gallic countryside. It is one of France’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful documentaries. It established Mr. Philibert as one of the world’s leading documentarians. It also turned one of its subjects, the unwaveringly patient and selfless teacher Georges Lopez, into a national hero at home. But Mr. Lopez fell out of favor with the public when he sued Mr. Philibert and producers for a share of profits. The now-retired teacher alleged that the film attracted unwelcome attention that traumatized the pupils in their new schools. Nine of the 11 students’ families also filed suits.

For his next project, Mr. Philibert has chosen to revisit the nonprofessional cast from another movie he worked on three decades ago. In 1976, he served as an assistant director on René Allio’s “I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother …” The film tells the story of a gruesome true-life crime that terrified a Normandy village in 1835. When philosopher Michel Foucault rediscovered the crime more than a century later, he compiled the testimonies, court documents, newspaper clippings, medical records, and Rivière’s meticulous confession into a book. It would serve as the basis for Allio’s morally complex, frighteningly realistic, but totally forgotten masterpiece.

Mr. Philibert was 24 years old when he cast the locals in Allio’s film. In “Back to Normandy,” he reconnects with the Normandy locals he knew while working for Allio. Unlike the subjects of “To Be and to Have,” the cast members of “I, Pierre Rivière” are content with their participation. They reminisce fondly or joke about the experience, even if it soon becomes apparent that that experience has impacted all of them.

Indeed, in some cases, the film disrupted their simple country lives. Annick Gehan, who played Rivière’s sibling, had to repeat a grade. Jacqueline Millière, who played Rivière’s wicked, and ultimately murdered, mother, had several unfriendly encounters with people who saw the film. There have been long-term effects, too, as the real-life characters continue to haunt the performers who stepped into their shoes. Ms. Gehan diligently searches graveyards and libraries as if inquiring into her own past life. When Claude Hébert — who gave an intense performance as the disturbed young Pierre Rivière — disappears without a trace, Mr. Philibert seems concerned that the experience of playing a killer has permanently scarred the once-aspiring actor.

According to the epilogue of “Back to Normandy,” Mr. Philibert’s reason for making the film has nothing to do with “To Be and to Have.” But if he were indeed trying to address the issue of lives under scrutiny, as called into question by Mr. Lopez’s lawsuit, then the result is disappointing. To be sure, “I, Pierre Rivière” was not a documentary. It was at best a re-enactment similar to PBS historical reality programs like “The 1900 House,” in which people dress up in period costumes and live without electricity or running water. Ultimately, Allio’s cast did not have to account for actions caught on film. “Back to Normandy” has some illuminating moments amid the nostalgia, but the film doesn’t have nearly as much insight to offer on class, gender, the shifting times, or 15-minute celebrity as Paul Almond’s and Michael Apted’s “Up!” series — a string of documentaries that has been following 14 subjects since they were 7 years old and reconvenes every seven years.

“Back to Normandy” also seems scattered and unfocused. Mr. Philibert even devotes large chunks of time to people who have little to do with the Allio film. Without the context of “I, Pierre Rivière,” “Normandy” is even less accessible. For example, a scene here depicts Joseph Leportier making apple cider, but it doesn’t show or explain that Mr. Leportier had to make apple cider in a similar fashion for his part as Pierre Rivière’s father in Allio’s film. Fortunately, Anthology Film Archives is screening both films starting Friday, so cinephiles won’t miss out.

Mr. Philibert’s new film isn’t nearly as haunting as some of his previous efforts. But one thing is sure: He is a wonderfully humanist filmmaker. The director keeps intact many imperfect moments when his interviewees misspoke or could not find the right words, and those indeed turn out to be very telling. Sometimes an interviewee accidentally calls attention to the fourth wall by addressing the filmmaker, but that only brings the audience closer to the scene. No matter how inconsequential a scene may be, Mr. Philibert always makes it fascinating to watch.


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