Title: Journal De France
Director: Raymond Depardon, Claudine Nougaret
Out Of Five: 3.5
“I’m trying to take a picture. Somebody always gets in the way.” Veteran photographer, documentary maker and cine journalist Raymond Depardon is travelling around France – mainly visiting parts of the country he doesn’t know – and photographing a way of life that is slowly disappearing. Does he use a digital camera? No fear! It’s an old Leica studio camera, complete with photographic plates at the back, which he perches on a wooden tripod.
While the film is called Journal de France, it’s equally a Journal de Raymond, a chronological stroll through his back catalogue, which is vast. From taking his camera for a walk around the Paris of the early 60s, he travels to major conflicts like Biafra, witnesses the Russians crushing the Prague Spring, gets the inside view on a French presidential election and examines the treatment of patients at an Italian mental hospital in Venice, which has now been turned into a luxury hotel.
At the start of the film, though, his focus is on a tobacconist on the corner of a street in a provincial town. He likes the red and white fascia, its 1950s look, but he still has to wait until the light is absolutely right before he can commit it to film. And that’s what he does throughout the film – driving around in his camper van until something catches his eye, stopping and waiting for the light to be perfect. It could take hours, but that doesn’t matter, and his subjects range from a charcuterie, a café or a an elderly quartet of men sat on a bench who he photographed 20 years ago in exactly the same place.
After each little contemporary scene, we’re taken back to something from his archive. And the eye for the tiniest detail is still there. During the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, everybody in Prague wears a small transistor radio round their neck to listen to the latest news. And, after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela allowed Depardon just one minute of filming, sitting silently in front of the camera. One minute is all it is: imprisonment means you know exactly how long a minute lasts.
There are plenty more, equally striking images – so many that at one point we’re presented with a montage of footage that obviously couldn’t be included at more length. And most of his work is presented without a soundtrack, sometimes even without any sound at all. It simply allows the filming to speak for itself.
The one thing missing from the film is a sense of Raymond Depardon himself. When we do see him, he’s usually driving his camper van, looking for his next location, and his soft features are almost a blank canvas in themselves. But most of the time, we see him from the back, or behind his camera, his head covered by red baize. The most we learn about him comes from the narration, provided by his long term collaborator, Claudine Nougaret, who comments on his never-ending curiosity about the world around him and further afield.
We are, however, kept very much at arm’s length throughout the film. You watch, you admire, you remember the events (if you’re old enough), but you never feel wholly engaged or involved. Maybe that’s what Depardon wants, so that we concentrate on his work. But we’re interested in him as well, and an understanding of the man himself would help us with a better understanding of his work. As it is, the film feels loosely connected, with only loose threads holding it together.
Journal De France is released nationwide on Friday, 31 January 2014.