Berlinale 2023 review: Sur l’Adamant (Nicolas Philibert)

“The director manages to do so through his simple, almost translucent filmmaking – he makes everyone, the audience as well as the patients, forget about the camera.”

Parisian health facilities were in the spotlight at the 73rd Berlinale, with Our Body by Claire Simon being one of the most praised titles in the Forum section, and Sur l’Adamant by Nicolas Philibert winning the Golden Bear – it is the second documentary in a row to receive the most prestigious award in a major festival competition, after All the Beauty and the Bloodshed in Venice. While Our Body takes place in a big workplace (the department of gynaecology at one of the largest hospitals in Paris), Sur l’Adamant is set in an intimate location, the eponymous psychiatric day-care centre. The movie brings its audience ‘on’ it because the Adamant is actually a barge on the river Seine, to which patients come one or several days a week. There, they are treated to some time away from everything, in many different ways: away from a strict therapeutic structure, from the everyday routine, even from the mainland as the place seems so remote from the city surrounding it. We hardly see anything of Paris, and when we do it feels distant and could be anywhere.

That is because the whole point of the film is to have us not only witness or understand that the Adamant is a bubble, but that we become a part of it. The only shots taken from outside the boat are when it opens each morning. We come aboard with the rest of the group, we are welcomed among them, and there is nothing else to it. Philibert achieves a great yet almost unnoticeable feat: he films the people on the Adamant without any trace of judgmental bias, whether negative or overly compassionate. They are not to be looked down upon, neither as freaks (even lightly) nor as kids needing to be shielded away from everything. They deserve to be treated as equals, and the director manages to do so through his simple, almost translucent filmmaking – he makes everyone, the audience as well as the patients, forget about the camera. Life aboard the Adamant is shot in extended, peaceful, still sequences, whether Philibert looks at the specifics of the organization (opening the place in the morning, bookkeeping the coffee shop at closing time), the numerous activities provided by the art therapists (painting, craft, music, even a film club with its own festival), or lengthy conversations with the people attending them. Only after several minutes of talking do we see their mental health issues begin to appear, not as something that defines them but as an additional layer to their rich personalities.

Sur l’Adamant does not shy away from the tragic parts of their lives (like a woman who did not get the chance to live with her child, as she started to hear voices soon after giving birth), but it chooses to turn the tables between the positive and the negative. The former always comes first, from the very beginning of the film: an uncut recording of a patient vigorously performing a song called ‘Human Bomb’ by a famous French band, Téléphone. It is quite some time later that we will learn of his condition, in his own terms: “if I don’t take my medicine, I act like I’m Jesus“. In the end, all these men and women are not so different from us. They are looking for answers to understand themselves and their place in the world, and for solutions to go through the days and make the most of it, even the seemingly uneventful ones. Sur l’Adamant is the caring portrait of a few of these ordinary days, which ends with the knowledge that there will be many more on board, and the hope that they will be as kind and healing.

(c) Image copyright: TS Production / Longride