What happens when you cast nonprofessional actors in a film drama? We tend to discuss the use of ”amateur” actors in terms of a given director’s dramatic intent, i.e. achieving an roughhewn “realism” or “authenticity” that eludes most polished professionals. But what isn’t discussed enough is how the experience of playing onscreen fictions may forever affect these unlikely performers. Perhaps the very idea of a “nonprofessional actor” is outmoded in the digital era, where the ubiquity of cameras and homemade videos has made performers of us all. In the process, we may take for granted the profound effect that being filmed may have in a less media-saturated world. To that effect there’s much of interest in Nicolas Philibert’s Back to Normandy (2007), a poignant remembrance of when a film production threw a village headlong into the realm of fiction.After the irrevocable (word choice? “Indelible”?) (or “foreceful?”) image of a piglet sliding out of its mother’s womb, the screen goes black, and we hear Philibert’s voice: “This film’s origin lies in another.” The film’s predecessor is I, Pierre Rivière, Having Butchered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother… (1976), based on a casebook edited by Michel Foucault. The historical Rivière was a Normandy peasant who in 1835, at the age of twenty, killed his mother, sister and brother with a billhook, claiming to act on behalf of his disgraced father in the name of the Father. Before taking his own life in prison, Pierre wrote an incandescent blend of deposition, confession and memoir detailing the circumstances leading up to the murders. Foucault collected all documents pertaining to the Rivière investigation, and René Allio filmed his adaptation close to the scene of the crime, casting local villagers as the Rivières and their neighbors.The history is remarkable for many reasons—the Rivière trial was one of the first to call upon psychiatric opinion and was widely covered in newspapers—but Philibert’s interest in the material is personal. Allio, who died in 1995, was Philibert’s mentor; I, Pierre Rivière… was one of his first jobs on a movie. He returns to Normandy a very different kind of filmmaker, admired for his sensitive documentaries portraits of self-contained worlds (To Be and To Have remains the best known). And yet, Philibert is doing more than simply excavating his own origins or conducting “before and after” experiments with the earlier film’s players. In Back to Normandy, he gets at the heart of his documentary impulse—the discovery of the self in the face (presence?) of another.The film has many of the qualities we’ve come to expect from Philibert’s films: the quiet glimpses of life as it’s lived, the dawning realization of community networks (characters are never introduced to us, and so we surmise relations in passing). But unusually for Philibert, Back to Normandy is rooted in two levels of direct address: he narrates the film and interviews participants. It’s telling that while Philibert eschews interview when filming an unfamiliar community, he avails himself of the technique when piecing together a past he knows firsthand. The first interview is shot along a conventional offscreen eyeline, a framing typically used to give an appearance of natural conversation while abstracting the listener. But here, the Normandy man is addressing a familiar “you”: Philibert, who first visited him to ask for materials and later cast him as Pierre’s father. Remembrance is a shared, dialogic pursuit.
Elsewhere, Back to Normandy’s interviews are staged to place I, Pierre Rivière…’s “transient actors” in view of the intervening years. Annick, who played Aimmée Rivière, the sister spared Pierre’s wrath, reminisces about her youthful excitement in being cast in a movie. She’s amazed by how vividly she remembers her earlier feelings; at her side, sitting silently, is the husband who came later. Then there is the large family seated in two rows, joking about the now elderly father’s part as Pierre’s mother’s lover. Like most families, they finish each other’s sentences, stitching the story together. At one point, the elderly man’s wife turns around to address one of her children seated behind her; the husband gently chides her for breaking documentary decorum, but Philibert must have savored having his camera shrugged off in this way.
So in Back to Normandy’s interviews we see Philibert’s regard for the present, his urge to let the camera run. But as a participant in this story, his concern is for the past, traces of which reside in the many documents under consideration: the earlier film, of course, but also Rivière’s script, Allio’s papers, and a portfolio detailing Claude Hébert, the brooding young man who played Pierre. The proliferation of primary texts cultivates a general appreciation for the tactile, familiar route to the historical imagination. When later in the film Hébert tells Philibert that the journals he kept as a young adult—part of his solitary connection to Pierre—are probably moldering in some attic, there is palpable dismay in Philibert’s question, “You don’t know where your diary is?”
Hébert is an intriguing mirror for Philibert. They both view Allio’s film as a formative experience. They both view Allio himself as a father figure. Both left Normandy—Hébert for Canada and then Haiti (this time Philibert had trouble locating him)—and so the “return” of the title could belong to either one of them. One is a missionary priest called into the service of others; the other a documentarian who depends on their cooperation. Finally before Philibert’s own camera, Hébert describes his experience playing Pierre as a kind of witnessing—that by embodying the condemned man, he sought to realize the complex inner life of this actual person who lived 150 years before him. Hébert may not have identified as an actor professionally, but his profound extension of empathy seems very much what Philibert is after in his own filmmaking.
Max Goldberg is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lives in Berkeley.