Judge P.S. Colbert doesn't want to live in a country where all but one language is against the law.
"Hear about the girl who died from a toxic kebab?"
Buckle yourself in, sit back, and prepare to sample the pleasures of a journey to through the theater of the mind.
With La Maison De La Radio, documentarian Nicolas Philibert presents a virtual 24-hour day in the life of Radio France, actually constructed from a six month shooting schedule, encompassing January-July 2011. Most of the (American generated) material I've found on RF compares it to our own NPR (National Public Radio), which is slightly misleading, as the French state-owned, publicly funded media organization includes seven major radio networks (France Inter; France Info; France Bleu; France Culture; France Musique; FIP; Le Mouv;), dedicated to all variety of formats—many of which cross-over—and fed to numerous stations country-wide.
The title—which roughly translates to "The House of Radio"—is also the name of the massive building which houses RF headquarters, in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, just a stone's throw from the River Seine, with a wonderful view of the nearby Eiffel Tower.
Once Inside, Philibert's cameras follow the workers trooping in, showing I.D., and funneling into elevator banks. We then roam the winding halls, seemingly poking into every nook and cranny:
• Peeping desk jockeys, scanning newspapers, the internet, and working phones for story leads. Here, the frenetic atmosphere created by fact-checking and constantly evaluating which story to pick over another is tempered by a sense of ironic gallows humor. ("The guy they found cut in two in the Isère was killed by a bullet in the back!").
• A senior editor schools a tyro on editing a news flash: "It has to be perfect: The choice of news, the order…If you lose us, there's no point in doing it. It's not like it pays much!"
• A bull-pen staff meeting convenes to consider scheduling and reporting assignments. ("Justin Bieber." "What's his audience? pre-teens. Our listeners? Not really.").
• Recording dialogue and special effects for a radio play. A beautiful brunette soprano rehearses German opera pieces. An in-house hip-hop music performance. A daily quiz show before a live studio audience. A late-night call-in request show for lovers. On-air chats with famed novelist Umberto Eco (The Name Of The Rose), Belgian pop star Arno, and Moroccan-born "slam" poet Tata Milouda, among others. We follow Jesus, the quiet and unassuming man who perpetually mans a mini-cart, laden with ice, water, juice and coffee. We pop into the parking garage below to see the fleet of staff cars being tuned up for road work.
But not even the confines of the building can hold us, as we follow a sound recordist deep into the forest to collect ambient nature in all its aural glory. We witness remote dispatches from a field correspondent on the Tour de France in progress—providing up-to-the-minute coverage from the back seat of a motorcycle, pacing the competitors.
And of course, there's the news (Tsunami in Japan, the "Arab Spring," a worker's strike at the Port of Marseilles, Bodies turning up in the Deule River…), sports, traffic and weather.
What Philibert's roving eye does not provide is context. That Radio France actually spans several networks and formats, the names of those networks (not all of which are actually represented here), and the title translation, among other things, I learned by doing my own research. La Maison De La Radio, while subtitled, is almost entirely bereft of identifiers to help guide newcomers. Philibert has become famous (some would say infamous) for his extreme fly-on-the-wall approach, which largely abandons the traditional narrative moorings that documentaries ordinarily employ to educate viewers with.
Frankly, I wasn't too impressed by the feeling of being marooned the after initially screening this film. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of visual and aural enjoyment to be wrung from this sojourn. It's just that I—like most, I'd guess, approach documentaries with an interest in learning about its subject. I expect bias, but being bombarded with sounds and visuals on a trip without a tour guide? That's unsettling, to say the least. Keep in mind that the soundtrack is almost entirely made up of foreign languages, and in fact, the subtitles don't necessarily pick up all the dialogue one hears. Add to that a parade of people (none of whom I recognized) marching in, out and past my eyes without introduction, and soon I was suffering the symptoms of Grade-A disorientation!
Conversely, Kino Lorber presents La Maison De La Radio essentially without blemishes. The anamorphic widescreen transfer pleases the eye, and there are two soundtrack options, either of which will serve the film commendably based on your home set-up. Again, (optional) English subtitles are available, but the "extras" (including this film's theatrical trailer, along with those for another pair of Kino Lorber releases) are obviously intended to serve the distributor first, customer second. But, wait—there's also an "About Kino Lorber" option; basically a freeze-frame filled with bragging about (and yet a few more releases named) the folks who just got your money for the disc you're watching! Looking on the bright side, though: these "bonus features" are presented as options, rather than obligations.
Like I said, the initial screening left me feeling a bit bothered and bewildered, but with a critic's stubborn WTF attitude, I pressed the "play" button a second time, and found myself marveling at the technical genius at work here. Ultimately, I believe that if you know what you're in for and you're fine with that, this little slice of Paris radio is quite a beaut.
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