‘Latest News From the Cosmos’ (‘Dernieres nouvelles du cosmos’): Film Review

Pyramide Distribution
An absorbing portrait of human creativity.

Director Julie Bertuccelli (‘The Tree,’ ‘School of Babel’) chronicles a highly autistic French woman who can compose short texts filled with poetry and wit.

Can a person incapable of speaking or writing somehow produce beautiful literature?

In Latest News From the Cosmos (Derniere nouvelles du cosmos), director Julie Bertuccelli answers that question in the affirmative, documenting the remarkable story of Helene Nicolas, aka Babouillec, a severely autistic 30-year-old French woman who manages to convey her deepest inner thoughts through a unique form of poetic wordplay. Both inspirational and informative, this touching creative portrait received a small theatrical release in France and should find additional bookings on the fest circuit, with possibilities for screenings at educational and institutional outfits.

Born in 1985, Helene lives in a quiet country homestead surrounded by rivers, trees and horses grazing in the fields. Unable to say anything but a few basic words, she seems on appearance to be young tween stuck in the body of someone much more mature, and is obviously in need of constant care. But around 10 years ago, Helene’s mother, Veronique, discovered that her daughter was in fact capable of learning how to read, and subsequently taught her how to spell out words using laminated plastic letters, in a sort of ongoing game of Scrabble through which Helene was soon able to communicate her desires, dreams and astute daily observations.

The result, collected in several books, the last of which was titled Eponymous Algorithm, reveals a highly intelligent mind capable of reducing complex ideas to cleverly executed phrases that read like philosophical haikus or prose-poetry aphorisms. (“We survive by instinct to survive. Only love separates us from nothingness.” “The taste for adventure mysteriously censors itself.”) Some sentences come across as joyfully mystical, as if Helene were privy to secrets of the world we can barely grasp. (“In fact I’m telepathic and iconoclastic, ideally you will know the founding principles enumerating the back-and-forth of cosmic energy.”)

Bertuccelli has directed a handful of features and documentaries — her last film, School of Babel, focused on an immigrant youth class in Paris — and in Cosmos she skillfully cuts between scenes of Helene “writing,” which can recall the automatic writing sessions of the Surrealists, and a series of performances where her texts are adapted into theater pieces that she often takes part in. (The film’s opening slyly brings these storylines together when we see Helene unable to sit still during a literary reading, only to realize that the reader is actually reciting one of her texts.)

Filming in close-up or even extreme close-up, as if trying to better penetrate the mystery residing behind Helene’s bewildering facial expressions, Bertuccelli (who operated camera and sound herself) underlines the enormous chasm separating her subject’s outward appearance from the insightful artistic mind that is reflected in her writing, leaving us to contemplate the difference between words, deeds and images. If ever there was a movie warning us not to judge a book by its cover, this is the one.

Production companies: Les Films du Poisson, Uccelli Production
Director: Julie Bertuccelli
Producers: Yael Fogiel, Laetitia Gonzalez
Director of photography: Julie Bertuccelli
Editor: Josiane Zardoya
Sales: Pyramide International

Not rated, 85 minutes

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