Journal de France: Cannes Review

An engaging self-portrait of the great French photographer and filmmaker.

Acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon and longtime collaborator Claudine Nougaret spend six years capturing France with a large format camera in this documentary.

A comprehensive and intimate introduction to a major contemporary photographer-filmmaker, Journal de France examines the extended oeuvre and working process of Raymond Depardon through his very own eyes, as well as through those of his long-time companion and sound engineer, Claudine Nougaret. Trailing the photojournalist as he drives an RV across the Gallic countryside to shoot a new series of landscapes, the film also intercuts in clips and outtakes from the director’s lengthy documentary catalogue, offering up an enticing amuse-bouche to an artist whose body of work has become essential viewing.

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Although he has been well known in France for several decades now, Depardon is far from a household name in the U.S., and only a handful of his most recent films – including the agricultural portrait, Modern Life, and the courtroom profile, 10th District Court – currently exist on DVD. If anything, this engaging and somewhat droll self-study should prompt the uninitiated to seek out his earlier movies, and it could provide the perfect accompaniment for future retrospectives and/or box sets.

Much of the footage of Depardon on the road was shot during a project started in 2004 for which he traveled throughout France’s various regions, capturing the essence of their cafés, factories, forests and highways with a large-format 20x25 camera. (The photos were shown in a 2011 exhibition at the Bibliotheque Nationale entitled La France.) Beyond their ethnographic interest, the richness of those pictures provides a solid argument for the uniqueness and splendor of celluloid, and watching Depardon take his precious time to snap the perfect street scene offers up a powerful antidote to an era inundated with disposable digital imagery.

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Mixed in with those behind-the-scenes moments are clips from dozens of documentaries ranging from the 1960s through the present, many of them tackling private and public institutions in a manner similar to Frederick Wiseman, except with more of a visual punch. Memorable excerpts include scenes from Depardon’s fascinating presidential campaign film, 1974, une partie de champagne (for which we learn that its subject, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, tried to have the movie banned because the director refused to add a soothing classical music score); the paparazzi exposé, Reporters; the petty crimes profile, Delits flagrants; and a riveting piece of combat footage from an unseen documentary about mercenaries in Biafra.

If there’s one tendency that becomes evident after surveying Depardon’s 40-odd years of reportage, it’s his refusal to cut the camera at all costs, to continue filming until he exposes truths and attitudes lying beneath the surface of events. This, along with an approach that never over-aestheticizes its subjects (“Perfect light can be dangerous,” he confides during one photo session), is what gives his oeuvre its rare blend of beauty and veracity – the ability to capture reality in all its grandeur à la Capa or Cartier-Bresson.

Despite Depardon’s no-joke methods, many of his films have revealed a softer side to them, and such lightheartedness is present here in Journal de France’s catchy soundtrack, which runs the gamut from Mahler to Patti Smith, by way of late French rock legend Alain Bashung. The musical interludes accompany the tender backstory of Depardon and Nougaret’s 25-year collaboration, tracing their affair from a first encounter on the set of Eric Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert (for which Nougaret was the sound recordist) up through and including the work at hand.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Production companies: Palmeraie et Desert, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Raymond Depardon, Claudine Nougaret
Directors, screenwriters: Raymond Depardon, Claudine Nougaret
Producer: Claudine Nougaret
Director of photography: Raymond Depardon
Production designer: Anne Falgueres
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 101 minutes