Film Review: Nicolas Philibert’s “La Maison de la Radio”

Renowned French documentarian Nicolas Philibert (“In the Land of the Deaf,” “To Be and to Have,” “Nenette”), presented himself with a daunting task for his latest film “La Maison de la Radio,” an examination of Radio France, the venerated institution that is the national equivalent of NPR in the U.S. or the BBC in Great Britain. To wit, how does one visualize a non-visual medium and compellingly make the invisible visible?

Philibert came up with a simple, yet extraordinarily successful solution: to focus on the human personalities behind the news reports, conversations, music and soundscapes that emerge daily from this “house of radio.”  Shot during a six-month period from January to July 2011, “La Maison de la Radio” is structured as one virtual day, covering programs from the early morning through the late night hours. The looming circular structure of the massive Radio France building, an iconic architectural landmark, is one of the very first sights we encounter, and one that reappears throughout. The film itself takes this shape, looping back over the course of its “day” to some of the characters we meet and the processes we witness.

Philibert, much like the American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, eschews such standard practices as voiceover, explanatory titles, and talking-head interviews, plunging the viewer directly into this institution’s bustling beehive of activity. The disorienting cacophony of voices and music in the film’s opening soon settles down to focus on a limited set of recurring characters, most of whom are quite entertaining. One of these is Marie-Claude Rabot-Pinson, the news manager of France Inter (one of Radio France’s stations), who maintains a wry gallows humor as she goes through the sometimes horrific news reports she must sort through and edit together for broadcast. Corpses discovered in a local river and a million dead sardines (or maybe anchovies) washed up on the California coast are but a couple of the scores of items she must consider for inclusion. Marguerite Gateau is another interesting character, who directs radio plays and readings. The exacting way she instructs actors on reciting dialogue and how she decides the right sound effects to insert, as well as her banter with the sound engineer at her side, is quite fascinating to watch. Frédéric Lodéon is the host of a classical music show whom we first encounter as a literal talking head, peeking out from behind a mountain of CDs piled on his desk. One of only a couple of radio personalities who directly addresses the camera, Lodéon remarks that despite the seeming chaos of his music cataloguing, he knows exactly where everything is and when they have been aired. He also speaks poetically about the comfort this music can provide to listeners, allowing them to temporarily forget their problems.

Philibert gives us an impressively thorough sense of the great diversity of Radio France’s programming and how it successfully caters to every type of listener, though it’s mostly directed at an intelligent, discerning public radio audience. The time period covered in the film encompasses some momentous world events, such as the Japan earthquake and tsunami, as well as the beginning of the Arab Spring. This coverage is balanced by some less serious phenomena; one particularly amusing episode has the France Inter staff debating the merits of including a story about Justin Bieber. Discussing who they could invite as an on-air expert, one staffer says, “I’d prefer a kid but a sociologist is more France Inter.” “A left-wing one,” another pipes up.

During the course of this virtual day in the life of Radio France, we drop in on music programs ranging from classical to hip-hop, quiz shows, and choir rehearsals. We also venture outside the studio to accompany a reporter on a motorcycle covering the Tour de France and watch a soundman record the sounds of the forest. Well-known writers such as Umberto Eco, Annie Ernaux, and Jean-Claude Carriere drop by. In a remarkable scene late in the film, Pierre Bastien, a musician who constructs instruments out of found objects, creates an elaborate set-up for his performance. Such compelling scenes make one wish radio had a visual component (although the web now makes such a thing possible).

With “La Maison de la Radio,” Nicolas Philibert has created a fascinating, visually and structurally elegant portrait of Radio France which will be of great interest both to aficionados and to those encountering this cultural landmark for the first time.

“La Maison de la Radio,” released by Kino Lorber, runs at the Film Forum in New York from September 4-17. Director Nicolas Philibert will appear in person on September 4 at the 7:50 pm show. For showtimes and tickets, visit Film Forum’s website. For more information on the film and playdates across the U.S., visit Kino Lorber’s website.

 Trailer: “La Maison de la Radio”