2023 had its fair share of memorable scores and music. Any year with new work from Joe Hisaishi and Mica Levi is going to be one for the books, but the last 12 months also gave us Robbie Robertson’s swan song and a Dev Hynes/Paul Schrader collaboration. In terms of performance, Bradley Cooper conducting the London Philharmonic was irresistible, but no more so than Talia Ryder’s opening number in The Sweet East or the hero of Fallen Leaves experiencing his moment of clarity while listening to a Swedish synth group. Maybe the best musical performance I saw in a movie this year comes at the beginning of Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant, a documentary about a psychiatric care center that sits on the river Seine and provides a port for inner storms. The singer’s name is François, an angular, middle-aged man who growls a raw rendition of Telephone’s 1979 French rock hit “La Bombe Humaine” as if his life depends on it. “You have the detonator,” François belts out, “right next to your heart.”

A lot of what’s good about On the Adamant can be found in that opening sequence: how François seems to channel his frustration through a creative outlet; how expression seems to focus him, if only for a minute. In another scene, a man with more apparent disabilities than François presents a drawing to the other members of his class, explaining that the two girls pictured are his daughters. When asked why he isn’t included in the scene, he charms the crowd by flipping it over to reveal another sketch of them together at the zoo. Those kinds of moments are what’s on offer in Philibert’s compassionate, calmly observed, at times intermittent film: an invitation to board the Adamant and meet its crew, enjoy their company, get some idea of their vantage, and appreciate the Art Brut energies of their craft.

One of the more eccentric characters is an older, foppish, but undeniably suave bohemian named Frédéric who likes to paint (he believes himself and his brother to be the reincarnation of Vincent van Gogh) and play music (Philibert films him recording a melancholy tune on piano.) In another scene he shares a spiky anecdote about meeting Wim Wenders. As a member of the Adamant’s popular movie club (upcoming screenings include works from Fellini and Kiarostami), Frédéric is chosen to give an introduction to Truffaut’s Day for Night––though we sadly never hear it. Philibert’s film takes as much inspiration from these lively subjects as it does the Adamant’s egalitarian ethos and design: constructed in 2010 from a moored barge just below the Charles de Gaulle bridge, the compact, modernist structure––with its elegant wooden flaps that open to take in the light––gives off the airy vibe of a bougie eatery or an artist’s studio. Inside, the team of caregivers complement this architectural space with an approach that emphasizes a similar sense of openness and equality.

Philibert began making films in the late 1970s, focusing on French institutions in a style that is less like his near-contemporary (and fellow Parisian) Frederick Wiseman than it immediately looks or sounds. Philibert’s presence is seldom felt here, but there are interactions between the film’s subjects and his team, among them head-on interviews. We witness some meetings, but the decision to include these seems less to do with the day-to-day running of the center and more a means of underlining the film’s central message. In one example, a woman interjects at a film-club meeting with an unprompted argument for individual expression (in her case, dance) that builds into an impassioned speech.

Where the film succeeds in drawing you into all that life, however, it does so in a patchwork of moments that never quite suggest a whole. On the Adamant premiered on the last day of this year’s Berlin Film Festival and surprised many by winning the Golden Bear the very next evening. Had the jury been asked to consider titles in the festival’s Forum section, they might have landed on Claire Simon’s Our Body, another doc on a famed Parisian public institution, albeit one with a robust conceptual backbone––not to mention most critics’ pick of the two. In her speech during the awards ceremony, jury president Kristen Stewart praised the newly crowned winner for celebrating the healing possibilities of art, yet Philibert’s film doesn’t shy from the limitations of those methods. Returning in a later scene, François admits to being skeptical about the process before explaining that, if he didn’t have his meds, he’d probably jump in the Seine––just to piss everyone off. Now that’s outsider art.

On the Adamant screened at the El Gouna Film Festival and will be released on March 15, 2024.

Grade: B

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