Flore: COLCOA Review
A French documentarian turned his camera on his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, in the process highlighting the benefits of unconventional (non-Western) treatment.
In Flore-- the name taken from the director’s mother-- Jean-Albert Lievre explores the deepening fog of Alzheimer’s, which encloses her. His film — which began with cellphone videos to show a neurologist and blossomed into a full-time project — is both dispassionate and intensely intimate. After a few stumbles in the early going, it finds its stride as an unexpectedly hopeful exploration of a terribly sad situation. Ultimately it’s a portrait of love, patience and the pursuit of a more humane, holistic approach than the drugs and institutionalization of conventional Western medicine.
The doc, which screened in Los Angeles as a selection of the COLCOA festival, is scheduled for a late-September release in France (under the title Flore, route de la mer) and will open stateside later in the fall. Beyond art-house audiences, it could entice those interested in alternative healing.
The opening stretches are distractingly busy: Impressionistic images (a soap bubble floats through Paris streets) are set to jazz and other music tracks, and there’s a surfeit of first-person voiceover narration. (For U.S. and other international audiences, French actor/voiceover artist Lemmy Constantine provides the English version of the director’s spoken thoughts.) The disorienting sensory overload might be the director’s way of expressing the derangement of his mother’s disease, but it takes a while for the film to settle into a fully engaging narrative — one that doesn’t rely on narration.
Flore encompasses three years, during which Lievre and his two siblings tried a number of institutions and finally chose to move their mother from Paris to the family summer home, on the island of Corsica — adding a heating system for year-round use and retrofitting it for safety, given Flore’s unpredictable wanderings and childlike inattention to danger. Lievre puts aside his travels as a maker of environmental films and moves there too, hiring two exceptional caretakers as well as a physical therapist and a small team of nurses. Together, they gently coax his mother through a rehabilitation that proves remarkable, even getting the artist to rediscover, if only on the most visceral level, the joy of applying paint to canvas.
The undertaking also reflects a certain luxury of time and money. There’s a brief reference to the French national health service, but the film doesn’t make clear how much of Flore’s care is covered by insurance.
Having shown that institutional settings, however well appointed, specialized or seemingly caring, essentially function as warehouses for drugged patients, Lievre captures the compassion of Flore’s caretakers and his mother’s steady improvement. With the support of a local doctor, she’s weaned off a regimen of meds, begins to eat again and to walk; by film’s end she’s hiking the coastal trails and swimming — tentatively but with a clear sense of delight.
Which is not to say that she overcomes the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s, but as the affecting later scenes make clear, she’s no longer the aggressive “problem patient” who requires the highest level of physical restriction, as the institutions that rejected her claimed.
The wild beauty of Corsica plays no small part in the healing, and Lievre, who also serves as DP, is attentive to the landscape’s changes through the seasons and its effect on his mother. With his judicious use of home movies, he shows the importance of the place to Flore: In decades-old footage she romps on the beach with her young children, her vibrancy and independence fairly leaping off the screen.
For all that’s lost and extinguished in this woman because of her illness, an elemental joie de vivre is regained as those caring for her insist on her selfhood and dignity. There are sudden bouts of sadness, too, tears that Flore can’t explain, much as she can’t explain, in her nearly post-verbal state, most of what she’s feeling. An especially poignant comparison of contemporary and vintage footage — juxtaposed with heart-stopping precision by editor Cecile Husson — emphasizes the reversal of the parent-toddler relationship. That’s a common experience as parents age, but in Flore’s gaze Lievre’s film confronts a specific mystery about an individual human spirit, a mystery that brain scans like those glimpsed in the documentary could never unravel.
Venue: COLCOA (Distrib Films)
Production: WLP, Mandarin Cinema
Narrator: Lemmy Constantine
Director-screenwriter: Jean-Albert Lievre
Producer: Jean-Albert Lievre
Director of photography: Jean-Albert Lievre
Music: Eric Mouquet
Editor: Cecile Husson
No MPAA rating; 93 min.