out of Five
Running time: 96
Languorously paced and engagingly structured, this is an intriguing and frequently moving documentary that serves as a fascinating introduction to Depardon's work and will hopefully inspire audiences to investigate his oeuvre in greater depth.
What's it all about?
Co-directed by acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon and his longtime partner and sound engineer Claudine Nougaret, Journal de France is an intriguingly structured documentary that takes a look Depardon's five-decade career in current affairs coverage. Nougaret both narrates and collates a selection of clips from his remarkable archive of filmed material, including: on-the-streets coverage of tanks rolling into Prague in 1968; footage of paid mercenaries discussing tactics in Biafra; an emotional interview with hostage Francoise Claustre (who spent three years in captivity in Chad); and scenes from various documentaries exploring France's institutions, such as the legal system, the police force, insane asylums (including a thoroughly upsetting interview with an institutionalised young woman) and so on.
Intercut with the archive footage are a number of present-day sequences of Depardon himself as he drives around France in a van, looking for interesting sites to photograph (he seems to be drawn to
images that represent a France that is slowly disappearing, such as businesses that are closing down). Along the way he offers a number of illustrative reflections on his working methods, whether it's exhibiting impressive levels of patience in waiting for the right shot or rejecting light that is deemed too perfect ("Perfect light can be dangerous").
There's a relentless and insatiable curiosity about Depardon's work that is difficult to resist, rendering even simple slow-panning countryside shots mesmerising. He also has a frankly astonishing knack
for blending into the background so that his subjects forget he's there; this is most notable in a sequence involving a group of Parisian policemen candidly discussing a horrific-sounding case, but
also, rather brilliantly, in a sequence shot when Depardon was profiling then Presidential candidate Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and he captured him suggesting that the best way to win his campaign was to make a few nice-sounding speeches but to essentially do nothing (when he subsequently became President, Giscard banned the film).
The film also offers several other unexpected pleasures, such as a newly-released Nelson Mandela giving Depardon a minute of silence, timing it in his own head to the second, a skill he learned while in
prison. There's even a touchingly romantic interlude, when Nougaret uncovers footage of their first meeting on the set of Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray; she says he filmed her all the time, pretending that he was testing the camera, and we clearly sense a mutual fascination unfolding between the pair.
Journal de France is a gentle, lovingly assembled documentary that offers a fascinating snapshot of a body of work that deserves to be much more widely known. Recommended.
Journal de France (R13)