Nicolas Philibert’s latest award-winning documentary, On the Adamant, flirts with a perilous romanticising of mental illness. By Jeff Sparrow.

Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant a one-dimensional look at mental illness

Frédéric, one of the men featured in Nicolas Philibert’s documentary film On the Adamant.
Frédéric, one of the men featured in Nicolas Philibert’s documentary film On the Adamant.
Credit: TS Productions

On the Adamant opens with the strum of an acoustic guitar and a middle-aged man called François, his missing teeth suggestive of a difficult past, performing “La Bombe Humaine” (“The Human Bomb”), a track from the iconic French band Téléphone. “I wanna talk to you / about tomorrow’s weapon,” he rasps. “Born of the world, / it will be its end / I wanna talk to you about me.”

Director Nicolas Philibert makes films in which ordinary people do precisely that: they talk to the audience about themselves. He came to prominence with 2003’s Être et avoir (To Be and to Have), which captured the dynamic between a charismatic teacher and his students in a small school in rural France. His latest work – the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2023 – focuses on a boat named the Adamant, moored on the Seine in Paris. We’re told nothing about its purpose; instead, we watch the people upon it as they conduct a meeting to discuss the vessel’s day-to-day operations.

Only gradually do we become aware of their mental illnesses, as the various characters address the camera to deliver rambling but often moving monologues. One young man describes the linguistic associations that obsess him, from a particular type of haircut that invokes the word “pigeon” to the sky-blue balaclava he connects with puree “because babies eat puree when it’s cold”.

François tells how his illness took hold during his teenage years, after he discovered he couldn’t live up to the expectations of his father, a famous film director. “Only strong meds keep me from raving,” he says. “Otherwise I think I’m Jesus, surrounded by little birdies up in heaven.”

Others discuss less conventional remedies, such as the special bracelets that a youth claims protect him from hostile vibrations. “The crystal captures the waves and imprisons them,” he says softly. “Wearing a magnet makes a real difference.”

Several lengthy scenes focus on Frédéric, an elderly Parisian bohemian, who speaks suavely on painting and poetry – and then casually mentions that he and his brother are incarnations of Vincent and Theo van Gogh. Wim Wenders recognises the relationship, Frédéric says, which often features in his films. Later, Frédéric takes to the piano, playing an affecting song he’s written about The Doors’ Jim Morrison and Morrison’s partner, Pamela Courson, an ill-fated couple whom Frédéric associates – alongside van Gogh and James Dean – with his own suffering.

During a painting class, a man called Olivier, afflicted with severe facial tics, shows simple but powerful images of his daughters Fanny and Suzanne, whom he longs to take to the zoo. Another woman holds up a picture. It started as a drawing of a giraffe, she says, but developed into a praying mantis. She calls it “Life, Love and Death”, explaining “it’s life because she scurries along, love because she mates, and death because she kills her husband”.

At a meeting of the in-house literary magazine, we hear an attendee as he dictates a poem. Another man casually plays complicated funk riffs on an electric guitar as he talks to the camera. The Adamant also hosts a very Parisian film club, which we see preparing for its 10th anniversary. Its participants chat knowledgeably about Federico Fellini, Woody Allen and Abbas Kiarostami.

We never learn how the boat attracts such a cultured crew (do they, perhaps, pass an audition?). But the cumulative effect comes very close to an old-fashioned romanticisation of the relationship between madness and art. Indeed, the film opens with a quotation from the educator and director Fernand Deligny that’s suggestive of precisely that point. “Never forget the gaps,” it reads. “If there are no gaps where do you expect the images to go? How else do you expect them to get in?”

That’s all well and good, though for many people, the gaps opened by a psychiatric episode do not result in unbridled creativity, but rather its opposite. The closest On the Adamant comes to a recognition of how mental illness prevents people expressing themselves is during a brief interview in which an obviously distraught woman looks directly at the camera and says bleakly, “I’ve lost my freedom. All of you are free.” Yet the movie doesn’t interrogate what she might mean.

The invocation of Deligny – an important figure within the French tradition of “anti-psychiatry” – perhaps explains why. In the rebellion of May 1968 and afterwards, many Parisian intellectuals identified madness as a key locus of opposition to the coercive state. By resisting the norms of capitalist rationality, so the argument went, the mentally ill established non-commodified ways of being. Hence the final frame of On the Adamant, in which text explains “in a world where thinking is often confined to ticking boxes and singularity is stifled, some places continue to resist, to keep the poetic function of mankind and language alive”.

Unfortunately, in the 21st century the old slogans of anti-psychiatry lack the relevance they might once have possessed. The neoliberal state doesn’t typically stifle the mentally ill so much as simply abandon them, by, for instance, deinstitutionalising fragile people and depositing them on the streets.

By allowing its subjects to speak without interruption or qualification, On the Adamant individualises patients, with their personalities emerging through, rather than despite, their conditions. That’s the strength of the film – and also its weakness.

Philibert’s underlying humanism delivers a likeable – albeit very slow – documentary, in which Frédéric and François shine as unlikely stars. Yet because the movie refuses to provide any context, it lacks the analytic sharpness that would give its empathy an edge. For instance, we briefly watch the characters dumpster diving for fresh fruit – a scene suggestive of a French health system as under-resourced as its Australian equivalent. But there’s no discussion of the causes or consequences of such deprivation.

You can see why. The lazy cliché of mental illness as inherently creative positions the medical establishment as correspondingly repressive – and so the withdrawal of its services becomes an opportunity for suppressed van Goghs to flourish, rather than a criminal neglect of vulnerable people. When, in the opening scene, François sings about being a “human bomb”, his rough vocals convey a genuine menace. It’s just a shame On the Adamant isn’t clearer about what needs to be exploded – and why. 

On the Adamant is streaming on DocPlay.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Dubious gaps".

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