Nicolas Philibert has said that he isn’t driven to make films about certain topics, but rather he prefers to find out what his movies are about while he’s making them. “In a way,” he explained in a 2005 interview for a film festival’s catalogue, “film topics are run-of-the-mill. Anything can become interesting. It is a question of how you look at it. The seemingly most banal topic can yield a magnificent film. But there is something else: in my mind, a project is only interesting if the film matter is worked through thoroughly.” His newest film, Le Maison de la Radio, a pleasant but minor work in an otherwise strong oeuvre, ironically feels, to measure this film against his own words, both run of the mill and deficiently “worked through.” His “topic” is Radio France, the French equivalent to NPR. Whether or not you consider this a banal topic, it’s plain to see that the puttering documentary doesn’t achieve magnificence. For once, to speak in Mr. Philibert’s language, his film’s subject is greater than his film, as his sensitivity and intuition, the antennae of his direction, seem to have been unable to guide him, during his six months of shooting, toward an interesting story.
What of Philibert’s self-prized “areas of darkness, parentheses, invisible parts, and bold formal choices” that, he wrote for another festival catalogue, “make it possible for the spectator to begin to think, for our imagination to be put into motion”? While much of the footage in Le Maison de la Radio could literally be considered the “invisible parts” of listening to a radio station, actually seeing what the people hard at work behind the scenes are doing, though a privilege, is unsurprising, and takes much the allure and mystery out of radio without offering much in exchange. In other words, Phillibert has traded in much of his “areas of darkness” for light; he’s stronger when he uses the unseen to play with audiences imaginations, like he did with the anonymous spectators who comment about the orangutans in Nenette. With Le Maison de la Radio, Philibert uses his “parentheses” to form an illusion of structure: Although speakers mention news events ranging from the Strauss-Kahn case to the recent, massive Japanese earthquake, the film is structured to suggest one 24-hour news-day cycle, an idea echoed by the Radio France’s headquarters, a circular-shaped building near the Eiffel Tower itself called Le Maison de la Radio.
Where most Philibert films have a soft, almost tantalizing way of revealing depth while feeling lightweight, Le Maison de la Radio feels mostly insubstantial. As a documentary about radio, it lightly touches all the obvious facets of operating a radio station: deciding what stories to pick, reporting out in the field, performing music, recording and editing sound, transcribing sound into braille, interviewing guests—who are unnamed until the end credits—such as Umberto Eco, and so on. But it doesn’t explain anything about these facets. For instance, we’re repeatedly brought back to Marguerite Gateau, an attentive, detail-focused woman (she’s actually a radio producer and director) who patiently works with her voice talent, take after take, to get the sound just right. But besides offering us a faint glimpse at the kind of intelligence needed to manage a radio program, these clips featuring the captivating Marguerite are just that: clips. Le Maison de la Radio doesn’t add these clips up into anything more than a simulated, round-the-clock workday. Philibert’s usually after something more; while filming, he’ll latch onto something that troubles him and explore it, such as he did with the morality of filming insanity in La Moindre des Choses, the cruelty in detached spectatorship in Nenette, or the invisibility of the deaf community in In the Land of the Deaf. Here he seems content with simply matching faces to voices, the work behind the scenes to the scenes, the literal to the imagined. Compared to Philibert’s other work, it’s rather pedestrian.