In To Be and to Have, Every Little Thing, or In the Land of the Deaf, Nicolas Philibert found places like a school, a museum or a psychiatric institute and stayed there to observe what was going on in front of him. Direct cinema was his only cinematographic choice. With “Back to Normandy” we hear the sound of his voice over the images, which gives us the clues for entering a much more complex structure.
The director evokes the shooting of a fiction film in 1975 by René Allio in which Philibert was the director’s first assistant: “I, Pierre Rivière, Having slaughtered my mother, my brother and my sister”. This fiction film was based on the writings of a man who killed his entire family in the 19th century and was filmed using amateur actors, all of whom were local farmers.
Philibert returns to them to try to understand how they remember this unusual experience, and these sequences offer us a deep look at what cinema means to them. A moment out of their lives to meet new people and have fun but also a huge experience as expressed by one of the ‘actors’ Annick: “The psychological work done for the movie is still teaching us things today.”
Philibert also investigates the medical reasons for the killing. He shows himself in a library reading the text written by Rivière in prison and a text Foucault studied to understand schizophrenia. Philibert shifts slightly from one subject to another but links everything through Allio’s shootings from which each theme of “Back to Normandy” originates. Scenes from the fiction film also allow the documentarist to speak of the difficulties of production, and a workers’ demonstration at a nearby nuclear plant gives him the opportunity to speak about ecology today. Finally Philibert reveals that his father played a small part in the Allio movie – but was cut in the final edited version. Returning to Normandy was also a personal way of honouring his father. By revealing his emotional motivations Philibert succeeds in making a unique movie, wonderfully arborescent.