‘On the Adamant’ Review: Nicolas Philibert Returns With a Tender Tour of a Mental Health Sanctuary

Trends in documentary-making have shifted radically since Nicolas Philibert’s “Être et Avoir” was a surprise arthouse hit two decades ago: That sweetly observational little film, following the ins and outs of a village elementary school over the course of a year, seems a quaintly modest proposition beside today’s more slickly immersive and narrativized nonfiction breakouts. If times have changed, however, Philibert has not. His latest, “On the Adamant,” finds him once more examining the human workings of a care-based institution from a reserved but compassionate distance, avoiding commentary and editorialization in favor of real-life character portraiture.

It turns out to be the right approach for the institution under scrutiny: The Adamant, a day-care center in central Paris for adults with a variety of mental disorders, offering its visitors a range of therapy, education and cultural activity. The human subjects here are both expressive and highly vulnerable, open to the low-key, non-invasive presence of Philibert’s camera, and the film is content to be an undulating patchwork of their everyday moods and moments, rather than anything more strenuously conceptual. Suited to specialist distributors and streaming platforms, “On the Adamant” might not achieve the crossover success Philibert has found in the past, but it’s a warm reminder of his perceptive gifts: A premiere slot in Berlin’s main competition, alongside much sleeker, more formally ambitious fiction fare, effectively underlines his place in the auteur leagues.

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The Adamant’s uniqueness as a facility begins with its location: a huge, timber-clad, architect-designed barge moored in the Seine in central Paris, not far from the French capital’s most vital cultural landmarks. As such, it thrives off the city’s energy while also feeling — afloat in the middle of it, shaded by bankside plane trees — like an escape from its chaos: a sanctuary in multiple senses. The film offers little contextualizing information upfront, though we gradually gather how it operates as we observe its comings and goings. Patients drop in, seemingly on their own time and of their own accord. Psychiatrists are on hand among the staff, but the atmosphere is loosely therapeutic, with an assortment of activities, facilities and counselling available to visitors: art classes here, a film club there, a café and a library for those who would rather entertain themselves.

Unsurprisingly, cultural nourishment is integral to The Adamant’s work, and its patients include a number of gifted creative types who can most effectively communicate via art and performance. The film opens on one middle-aged man, François, belting out the 1970s French rock tune “The Human Bomb” (“You hold it in your hand/you have the detonator/just beside the heart”) with an impassioned growl that sounds close to cathartic — an anthem for self-determination in a place where the help of others is required. If he seems cogent and confident while singing, he later admits what a front that is: “Only strong meds keep me talking to you,” he says, “otherwise I think I’m Jesus.”

Another musician, the gentlemanly Frederic, composes his own morosely funny, poetic songs on the fly, citing Jim Morrison as an influence but also touched by the spirit of Jacques Brel. Later, he presents a screening of François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” at the film club. He’s a generally droll, good-humored presence, and just as we wonder what hidden mental anguish brought him to the facility in the first place, he muses on his artistic kinship with Vincent van Gogh: “I want to find out why tragic things happen to us.” In another room, a man with more prominent learning difficulties talks minders through drawings that hint at complex family history; later, as he assists with selling and serving coffee at the café, he brightens with pleasure at communal involvement.

If “On the Adamant” focuses heavily on the relief and release that the center brings to its visitors, it’s not wholly rosy. With an air of pragmatic melancholy, a woman reflects on her teenage son, whom she lost to the foster care system when he was five; an elderly widow, with a wide, unblinking stare, caustically remarks, “I’ve lost my freedom. All of you are free.” Philibert isn’t a pushy interviewer: When subjects do address the camera directly, they appear to be monologuing rather than answering questions, as the film patiently permits them to reveal themselves on their own terms.

No staff members are directly interviewed, though we sit in on a few meetings where new therapists are introduced and daily agendas are run through. Unlike Frederick Wiseman, say, Philibert is not especially interested in institutional nuts and bolts. When the film touches on administration, it’s to see how individuals react to plans and regulations, as when one female patient’s proposal to lead a new dance class escalates into an impassioned screed against every restriction she feels is holding her back.

At the film’s close, Philibert can’t resist a title card that finally articulates his view on proceedings, as he celebrates The Adamant for “keeping the poetic function of mankind,” before wondering how much longer it can survive as such. (With the funding and running of the center never addressed on screen, this is the first suggestion that this floating haven might be in any kind of peril.) It’s hard not to agree with him, but “On the Adamant” is most moving when it stands back, letting its most disenfranchised subjects talk, or shout, or sing.

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