Television: The answer is blowing in the trees

True Stories

Channel 4

It's hard to be matter-of-fact if you're a French filmmaker. Behind your every shot there lurks a tradition of such poetry, such lyricism, such beauty and such nonsense. Take, for example, a simple shot of treetops shaking in the breeze, with or without rain-soaked foliage and/or starlings and/or croaking crows. Is it a breathing space? Is it a pause for thought? Is it a meditation on being in the existential sense?

The treetops shook more than once in Every Little Thing, a French-made documentary shown as part of Channel 4's . Presumably, they belonged to the grounds of La Borde, the psychiatric clinic in central France which the film was all about. La Borde, a voiceover tells us, "has no walls, no uniform staff and no regular routines; founded in 1953, it aims to give its patients asylum in the literal sense". Every summer, residents and staff put on a play. This year, the play is Operette by Witold Gombrowicz, chosen by Marie, a former actress on the clinic staff; and it's pretty strange. "Christmas on the balcony/ Easter on the chimney/ In April keep your clothes on/ The sun is not that warm," goes one monologue.

The camera follows rehearsals - which happen in the forest clearing - with some perfunctory fly-on-wall work around residents' day-to-day life and duties inside. In contradistinction to the voiceover, life at La Borde did not appear to be particularly antinomian. Residents were mopping floors and folding towels and chopping parsley like people with rotas do. Also, there is nothing especially "unorthodox" - in Britain at least - about treating people with mental illnesses in this sort of environment. It's philosophically mainstream - it just costs a lot of money.

Sadly, however, this film was banal, and badly faithed in a curious, ask-me-no-questions-and-I'll-tell-you-no-lies sort of way. The first problem has to do with mental illness as metaphor, and with the fact - quite unacknowledged in the film - that for you, me and everyone else watching, this is not the first time we've had cause to think about psychiatric patients putting on plays. It happened in The Marat/Sade, especially in Peter Brook's famous Theatre of Cruelty version. Bits of it happened in Titicut Follies and My Dinner With Andre too.

Now all these things are of Sixties origin. As pieces of art they are unfashionable; and as ways of looking at people with mental-health problems, they really won't do at all. "Madness", "lunacy", "raving", "insane": psychiatry has now banished all such unhelpfully evocative images, replacing them with a quieter, more provisional language of "syndromes" and "disorders"instead. Which is an excellent development for everyone, except for the sort of artists who rely on old-fashioned madness imagery as a metaphorical resource. Eg Nicholas Philibert, the maker of this film. He doesn't exactly romanticise the condition of the people he films. But he doesn't not romanticise them either.

The film is full of images which traditionally signify some sort of profundity: the aforementioned tree stuff; long, static shots of one or another La Borde resident looking vacant and/or distressed. Now as we know, one reason such souls are free to act in plays and stuff these days is because the more troublesome manifestations of their problems can be controlled by medication. And to be fair, we do briefly see a young woman at work in the dispensary. And we do see a woman drop her work to go for her "injection". Perhaps the idea was to be sensitive and subtle. But a quick up-front explanation of how drug therapy fits into the La Borde regime would have been more to the point.

One resident, Michel, proclaims himself an admirer of the Gombrowicz text. "The dialogue doesn't make any sense - I like that," he says. Aaaah, I almost felt the filmmaker delightedly sighing - a compliant subject at last. A little later, Michel sits on his bed wearing an African ceremonial mask. Then he takes it off and the camera lingers on his features, "to reveal an equally impenetrable face behind it," as one press article has said. Michel, you see, has a sense for the sort of moments that tend to go down best.

Then Michel does a tidy little rant about how "you made me ill - society in general". His eyeballs were drooping as he spoke. "Are you drifting?" Philibert asks. "A bit. But I'm at La Borde. I'm not afraid ... We're among ourselves. And you're among us too, for the moment ... "

RESULT! I'm almost sure I heard the filmmaker shrieking. A church bell tolled like in the Stella Artois advert; a composition of rain-spattered garden chairs was seen. And Michel looked like he was about to fall asleep.

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