‘On the Adamant’ review: Nicolas Philibert’s Golden Bear-winning doc offers a de-stigmatized approach to mental health treatment

The first thing you notice about Adamant is that it absolutely is beautiful — not just for a mental institution, which tends to resemble prisons or kennels, but for any kind of building. A floating barge moored on the right bank of the Seine (where it is surrounded by a maze of insensitive concrete towers), this self-contained wing of the Central Psychiatric Group in Paris juts out of the landscape like an ancient cabinet accidentally dropped into the middle of a Ikea showroom; it’s hard to shake the feeling that someone could notice the mistake and blow the whole thing out of the water at any moment.

And yet the barge’s brown oak slats continue to open each morning, music to the ears of local men and women whose mental breakdowns have left them nowhere else to go. Unlike so many other day centers like this, however, Adamant refuses to act as a last resort. Staffed by local health specialists and home to art workshops, a screening room and a cafe run by some of its most loyal customers, the Adamant is both a safe haven and a thriving community in its own right. His assistance can be prescribed, but his patients to want to be there, and that makes all the difference to their dignity.

Stress positions

Mental illness often becomes a double blind that can make people seem invisible to the world (and themselves along with it), but Adamant, absent from the visual signifiers of psychiatric treatment, encourages visitors to see beyond and despite the his condition It reminds them that mental illness is a condition they have, not the defining element of who they are. The sole ambition of Nicolas Philibert’s Berlinale-winning “On the Adamant” is to extend this vision to a wider audience; to subtly, almost imperceptibly, challenge the idea that “madness” should be kept out of the sight of polite society when we can’t even get away from the beautiful things of our own minds.

Wiseman at first sight, but in the absence of a broader institutional approach to French psychiatry (along with anything else that might challenge the magic of the Adamant method or clarify the last-minute implication that the center is under threat), the fly -where-of Philibert. The documentary on the wall is all the more effective because the director refuses to pretend that it is not visible, not in this place where people come to be seen, and not just to look. Long stretches of strictly observational cinema allow us to absorb the rhythms of daily life aboard the Adamant and familiarize ourselves with a small handful of regular patients, but Philibert best asserts the installation’s methods by allowing his subjects directly address the camera.

One of them has a lot of questions about the equipment, and whether it’s fair that Philibert’s assistant should carry it. Another insists that all patients are “actors without realizing it.” In a different circumstance, that comment might sound accusatory (Philibert was unsuccessfully sued for exploitation over the theme of 2002’s “To Be and to Have”), but here it seems almost complimentary, as if the patient acknowledges the director’s presence It feels like a natural consequence of an environment where creativity is used to puncture the worst assumptions one can make about one another. Or, as Philibert puts it in a final scribble that puts his thumb on the scale more than Wiseman ever did: “To keep alive the poetic function of humanity and language.”

Somewhat shapeless in its design (the film doesn’t seem to follow a strict timeline, and a few stray masks are our only indication of when it was shot), “On the Adamant” spends much of its time watching the patients argue and/or explore their relationship with the arts. One is a gifted illustrator, another a dedicated guitarist; the documentary opens with a man named François performing an energetic rendition of the 1979 rock song “Le Bombe Humaine” by the French band Téléphone, the lyrics of which allow his deepest frustrations to draw attention to they deserve These characters don’t have clear arcs, per se, but they help instill a vivid sense of community.

Later, the patients stage a film festival where they decide to screen Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees,” though the scene reveals less about that choice than the agency of everyone aboard the Adamant, where patients share in balancing the cafeteria budget, and the very design of which was created with input from the people the facility was built to help.

“On the Adamant” does not claim to be representative of France’s mental health system in general (indeed, the film is the first installment of a trilogy that will explore different facets of the country’s approach to psychiatric care) , but Philibert still runs the risk of painting a deceptively idyllic picture of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia, severe OCD, or any of the other conditions the film refuses to classify. We are never told whether patients must meet any particular criteria to be able to access Adamant, and while many of them openly discuss the positive benefits of its drugs (without which one man says he believes he is Jesus, “surrounded by few birds in the sky”), it is not clear whether these drugs are a requirement for admission. There are no violent outbursts, nothing more aggressive than the fleeting glimpse of an argument. Quiet heartbreak abounds (“The mentally ill have no family,” declares one patient), but the only sign of immediate trouble comes when the resident bohemian suddenly implies that he and his brother were the inspiration for “Paris, Texas “.

But this is not to suggest that Philibert has left the most difficult moments on the cutting room floor or, in defiance of the central message of his film, to insist that mental illness must look a particular way to be recognized as such On the contrary, it just means that “On the Adamant” is less interested in highlighting the most obvious symptoms of mental illness than in calling attention to the deposits of humanity that tend to disappear behind them, though they run so much deeper than the conditions that hide them from view.

It’s an unforced—and sometimes unfocused—film that emphasizes environmental empathy over instructional rhetoric; by immersing viewers in a facility where patients can be indistinguishable from staff, Philibert places his faith in the idea that audiences will naturally come to distrust the stratification of a social framework that is determined to dehumanize the people for their differences.

What “On the Adamant” lacks in memorable episodes it makes up for in its emphasis on the space between them, that how the space between people is smaller than we think, and how space. inside people are richer than we can imagine. As one of the patients says when discussing his latest artwork with the rest of the drawing class, “You’re free to see what you want.” It’s a freedom that many of us surrender too willingly, and one that this film is determined to restore.

Degree: B

Kino Lorber will open “On the Adamant” in theaters on Friday, March 29.

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