‘On the Adamant’ Review: A Psychiatric Facility on the Seine

It’s hard to tell the difference between the patients and staff in “On the Adamant,” Nicolas Philibert’s documentary about an alternative psychiatric facility in Paris. The treatment center, located in a large houseboat with louvered windows, floats tranquilly on the Seine.

Inside the Adamant, a convivial atmosphere of disorder reigns. In the opening scenes, Philibert turns his camera on an unnamed toothy gentleman belting scratchy vocals during a jam session. The man is so at ease that he really goes for it — squinting his eyes and vigorously wagging his fist.

“On the Adamant” is like a jam session, too — a jumble of bright spots and tedious meanderings. Absent explanatory captions and title cards, the documentary offers no guidance on who’s who or how things are run, opting instead for a dazed, occasionally sleepy, immersion.

Like Frederick Wiseman, his American counterpart in documentary filmmaking, Philibert is fascinated by the inner-workings of institutions in his native France. See, for instance, his documentary about a single-class primary school in rural Auvergne (“To Be and to Have”) or his behind-the-scenes explorations of the Louvre (“Louvre City”) and a Parisian radio station (“La Maison de la Radio”). In “Every Little Thing,” from 1997, he spotlighted the famed La Borde psychiatric clinic, structuring his study around the patients’ rehearsals for their summer play.

In “On the Adamant,” Philibert employs steady camerawork as he goes around the facility and captures its patients in conversation with each other and their caretakers. Throughout, we stumble upon new group activities (jam-making, sewing, painting), which patients are free to partake in, or not.

No one is as magnetic as the aforementioned rocker, in part because Philibert assumes a passive gaze, one that seems to listen but hardly asks. At worst, it seems like he doesn’t know what to do with his subjects.

In any case, that Philibert doesn’t stick to a “main character,” or impose a phony narrative arc, vibes well with the facility’s free-spirited methods, even if the documentary lacks the drama of a more structured production. Yet there’s something to be said about how quaint and unremarkable this quite remarkable — borderline utopian — facility is made out to be. Could treating the mentally ill with respect and empathy be this simple?

On the Adamant
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters.

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