Back To Normandy Review

Nicolas Philibert’s Back To Normandy is a blissfully tranquil experience, meditating on time and change in a serene and unhurried manner which is completely spellbinding. It demands concentration and a certain patience but it pays back the viewer with a story which has a cumulative power and ends with an unexpected emotional punch that sends you reeling.

Back in 1976, Philibert was assistant director on Rene Allio’s film I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother, a study of a crime which took place in Normandy in 1835. Philibert’s pivotal task was to assemble the cast who would play the peasants, including the central role of the murderer, Pierre Riviere. It had been decided that they would be non-actors and parts were given to people from the area, some of whom were descended from villagers who had been around at the time of the killings. Philibert found his cast and the film was completed. Thirty years later, having become a successful director himself, he decided to go back and see what had happened to the people who acted in the film.

This is a very neat idea, not dissimilar to books such as The Boys of Summer and What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? which go back to significant times in the authors’ lives and trace the fates of those involved to the present day. But Philibert is also interested in the way of life of those people he interviews and there are lengthy sequences during which we watch people at work. One woman is now a teacher of the mentally handicapped and we see her working with them, showing infinite patience and kindness – qualities she ascribes to her time working on the film and learning about her character. Another man is a farmer and we view his daily life, delivering newborn piglets and slaughtering older ones. These scenes are shown in unflinching detail as if Philibert wants to record a particular way of life before it is gone. There is a sense here – as there is in Etre Et Avoir, Philibert’s previous film – of the documentarian as archivist and its strangely beautiful and rather moving. The camera is itself as unhurried as the pace, as if hurrying would simply result in something being missed – even the apples being pressed have their own fascination.

One feels throughout Back to Normandy that Philibert is looking for something but isn’t entirely sure what – it’s as if he’s feeling his way through into his deepest emotions. There are moments when we have a flash of something strange and troubling – a couple, talking about their schizophrenic daughter and how they coped with the experience, are open and honest, even when the wife discusses the toll it took on her. These moments are like ripples in the soothing waters and they help to keep the viewer from becoming too complacent. Then we get to Philibert’s final cast member, Claude Hebert who played Pierre. Hebert became very close to director Rene Allio and moved to Paris to pursue a career in films but became disillusioned. Thirty years later, he has become a Christian missionary in Haiti. When he is eventually tracked down and talks, there’s a sense of a painful, emotionally turbulent past finally being put to rest. Again, the effect it has on us is odd and strange, seeing a young man become middle-aged and change so dramatically. Perhaps sympathetic viewers are encouraged to relate these changes to their own lives and that’s what makes it so moving.

Finally, Philibert reaches his own purpose in making the film, one which I will not reveal for it is the kind of emotional summation which could be so easily spoiled by the careless reviewer. But it’s a scene of magisterial beauty and poignancy, providing an ideal finish to a film which is unusual in its reflective maturity and thoughtfulness. Back To Normandy may well be what Leslie Halliwell used to call “caviare to the general” but for viewers who respond to it, the experience will be unforgettable.

The Disc

Tartan’s release of Back To Normandy comes alongside a DVD of I, Pierre Riviere and both films gain from being seen with the other.

Back To Normandy is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It was shot on Super 16 and then blown-up to 35MM for cinema release. The transfer is very good indeed with rich colours, a reasonable amount of detail and no obvious problems. There are three soundtracks, all in French. The best is the DTS 5.1 Surround track which offers wonderful atmospheric ambient noise on the surround channels and very clear, crisp dialogue. Nothing wrong with the Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 tracks but the DTS track has the edge.

The extras are limited to a trailer – interesting for demonstrating the problems in selling this kind of movie - and an interview with the director. This was conducted at the BFI Southbank and is marred by some sound problems. However, the content is certainly worthwhile as Geoff Andrew elicits some fascinating information from Philibert, who speaks in French and uses a translator throughout. Some questions from the audience are also included.

The film has optional English subtitles but the interview does not.

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