A recent subset of French docs has shown a fascination with returning. Babette Mangolte, in her superb The Models of “Pickpocket” (2005), travels the globe in search of the “stars” of Bresson’s 1959 classic; in Raymond Depardon’s Profiles of Farmers series, the director has gone back twice to catch up with the cultivators he first filmed in 2001. In Back to Normandy, Nicolas Philibert (To Be and to Have) returns to the hamlet where, 30 years earlier, he served as an assistant director on René Allio’s I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother… (which Anthology is reviving for a week), based on an infamous mass murder in 1835 that piqued the interest of Michel Foucault.
While Mangolte’s and Depardon’s reasoning for following up is clear—affection, curiosity, admiration—the same can’t be said of Philibert. What, exactly, is the purpose of beginning his film with the extreme, queasy-making close-up of piglets being born? Philibert speaks with several of the locals who acted in I, Pierre Rivière, many of whom remember him warmly, a sentiment not necessarily reciprocated by the director. When one woman, discussing painful details about her daughter’s illness, demands that the cameras be turned off, Philibert keeps rolling. The testimony of Normandy’s subjects is always fascinating; Philibert proves that not all directors should wade in the same river twice.