Radio Edit

09.01.13

Nicolas Philibert, La Maison de la Radio, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes. Alain Bedout.


LOCATED ALONG THE SEINE in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement, the massive, circular building of the title of Nicolas Philibert’s often frustrating documentary La Maison de la Radio houses his subject, Radio France, a public broadcaster that encompasses seven national networks. The overwhelming array of programs—ranging from newsmagazines to quiz shows to interviews with a sexagenarian Moroccan slam poet to air time devoted to live, in-studio Gallic hip-hop performances—available to listeners is glibly conveyed in Philibert’s film, with more time spent on the assembling of soft rather than hard news, on workplace jokes instead of journalistic craft. Imagine a documentary on NPR more besotted with the inanities of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! than with, say, Nina Totenberg’s Supreme Court analyses.

Shot primarily from January to July 2011 but structured as if unfolding over one twenty-four-hour period, La Maison de la Radio promisingly begins with a cantankerous editor upbraiding a tyro reporter over his story on Syria. “No one hears quotation marks on the radio,” she reminds her chagrined employee; their exchange provides insight into the particular challenges of transmitting complex information via a solely auditory medium. When Philibert focuses his attention on news-gathering and script preparation, later seen as blind journalist Laetitia Bernard taps furiously at her Braille keyboard before going on the air, La Maison plays as a thoughtful, curious chronicle of dedicated professionals. But these engaging segments are dwarfed by desultory scenes of rehearsals by the Choir of Radio France, a contestant on Le Jeu de 1000 Euros racking his brain to answer a trivia question, and two goofballs interviewing the physical comedian Jos Houben.

Philibert’s misguided, darting attention in La Maison de la Radio is particularly curious given the deep focus of two of his best-known documentaries, To Be and to Have (2002), a country-school portrait, and Nénette (2010), about the star-attraction orangutan at the zoo in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. The long, observational takes in both yield ample rewards: The conjugation of auxiliary verbs is elevated from the mundane to the majestic in the former, and seventy minutes of almost nothing but a russet-haired simian watching those who gawk at her becomes an intriguing exercise in voyeurism in the latter. La Maison de la Radio fares even worse when compared with two other recent, immersive documentaries by Frederick Wiseman on Parisian institutions: La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and Crazy Horse (2011), about the French capital’s classy nudie cabaret. In their work, both Philibert and Wiseman dispense with the usual nonfiction-filmmaking signposts, such as narration, identifying intertitles, and talking-head interviews. But in his latest project, Philibert appears no longer concerned with demanding viewers’ close attention.

Watching La Maison de la Radio is akin to distractedly punching the “search” button on a car stereo, impatiently flitting past the FM stations. Perhaps if Philibert had given his film a running time typical of a Wiseman production (three hours maybe, rather than 103 minutes) or narrowed his focus (Evelyne Adam, the host of a call-in request show, warrants her own cine-profile), this documentary wouldn’t seem so insignificant. Radio is often acclaimed as the most intimate of media; here, it seems the most superficial.

Melissa Anderson

La Maison de la Radio plays at |Film Forum in New York September 4 through 17.