The simple premise to this latest documentary from the director of ‘Etre et Avoir’ was his efforts to reunite with the non-professional actors he worked with on René Allio’s ‘I Pierre Rivière’ some 30 years ago. The original project itself was an interesting one, which involved Philibert finding locals – mainly farm-workers and their families – to play the parts of the peasant protagonists in a celebrated rural tragedy and triple murder for a film based on a famous book by philosopher Michel Foucault.
Typically, Philibert, in interviewing those he finds, doesn’t seek to draw explicit conclusions or meanings in what, for some, was an intriguingly transformative experience, contenting himself rather in allowing his interviewees – now in their forties and over – to speak for themselves. But, what he does do, in providing a subtly orchestrated context – illustrating the energies and intentions of the work of Foucault and Allio, his own autobiographical affinities, or composing short portraits of modern country life – is give a scale and resonance to the question of how our human endeavours seem in retrospect.
It’s made all the more powerful by the director’s incidental privileging of, so-to-speak, society’s lesser-publicised cast members. The quietly self-analytical and philosophical dimension to ‘Back to Normandy’ and all Philibert’s work – how his very methods show an awareness of how documentary can reveal or , indeed, provide a barrier to our understanding of people – can initially tantalise or frustrate some viewers, but they should be won over by the director’s warm humanity, puckish sense of humour and rich appetite for contingent associations.