I’ve been hearing about this film for a little while. The director of the original Moi, Pierre Rivière film based on Foucault’s publication of the legal case, has revisited the original actors and made a documentary.
Five years ago, French documentarist Nicolas Philibert received global acclaim for Etre et Avoir, his gentle study of an infant school in rural France and its charming, endlessly patient teacher. It was beautiful in its simplicity, clarity and accessibility. His new film could not be more different: a rarefied cine-essay perhaps most suitable for film festivals or graduate seminars – and yet it succeeds as a sophisticated meditation on community, transgression and the law.
Thirty years ago, Philibert served as assistant director on the 1976 film Moi, Pierre Rivière …, directed by Rene Allio: a dramatisation using mainly non-professionals, based on the sensational 1835 memoir by a Normandy farmer’s son, Pierre Rivière, who wrote it in his prison cell while condemned to death for the grisly slaying of his mother, sister and brother. Despite having only the most rudimentary schooling, Rivière was able to compose a remarkable story, which was rediscovered in manuscript in early 1970s by a team of scholars working under the direction of the philosopher and intellectual historian Michel Foucault. He convinced the intellectual world that, far from being a mere true-crime sociological footnote, the Rivière memoir was a classic. As his case was the first to use psychiatric testimony, it is a crucial guide to the way medical scrutiny was being married to judicial control. As a criminal’s apologia, the Rivière story renders power structures visible as nothing else could; and given that language and writing are the prerogative of rational, law-abiding folk, it poses a radical challenge to all our ideas about the Enlightenment itself.
All these ideas are revisited now by Philibert in this film. But very, very indirectly. His approach is simply to seek out all the people involved in the original, largely unseen film. They have nothing but happy memories, but slowly, subtly, it appears that these people have their own issues with the law, with power, with ideas of mental illness, which Philibert allows us to compare with the 19th-century scene. In one gruesome sequence, he shows us that slaying a pig is done on modern farms exactly as it was in Rivière’s time. This is a very récherché and specialist film-about-a-film-about-a-legal case – sometimes exasperatingly so. But there is real food for thought here.
Via the Guardian.