La Maison de la Radio: Berlin Review

La Maison de la Radio H
Hearing is believing in this captivating behind-the-scenes portrait of French public radio.

"To Be and To Have" director Nicolas Philibert explores the inner workings of Radio France in this Berlin Panorama premiere.

BERLIN -- Putting a face to the voices behind the NPR-style behemoth that is Radio France, Nicolas Philibert’s fly-on-the-wall documentary, La Maison de la Radio, is an enchanting exploration of the inner workings and tireless professionals whose efforts resound over the airwaves of one of Gaul’s premiere cultural institutions. Not unlike the director’s In the Land of the Deaf, which used images to explore a soundless world, or Louvre City, which raised the lid on the infamous Parisian museum, the film is a textured portrait of human beings and the jobs they do, offering scant commentary but much to chew on, not to mention plenty of laughs -- no small feat in a movie dedicated to something as dry sounding as “public radio.”

While Maison will be an easy sell in Francophone markets, with Les Films du Losange (Amour) releasing locally in early April, it’s got enough of a charm factor to carry it to niche overseas theatrical outlets, VOD and specialty broadcast.

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One thing standing in its way could be the notable lack of on-screen titles, or anything overtly explaining who and what it is we’re watching. But like contemporaries Raymond Depardon or Frederick Wiseman, Philibert is much less interested in facts and figures than in plunging himself into an unknown universe, shooting dozens of hours of footage (along with credited cameramen Katell Djian and Laurent Chevallier) and then piecing it together to construct a story whose central plot is the location itself, and particularly the people inhabiting it.

In this instance, that place is the massive (and massively ugly) donut-shaped building which houses several of France’s premiere public radio stations, most notably France Inter, France Info and France Bleu. Introducing the various subjects and studios in an opening cacophony of sounds and voices (expertly mixed by Olivier Do Huu, The Princess of Montpensier), the film eventually focuses on a few employees, who were clearly singled out for both their level of expertise and their dry, and very French, brand of charisma.

Without a doubt, the most entertaining of them is France Inter news manager Marie-Claude Rabot-Panson, who sifts through a series of grisly fait divers (news briefs) with all the delicacy of a stand-up comic. Then there’s Marguerite Gateau, who sits behind a mixing panel directing radio plays and readings, offering wry commentary while listening in with all the attention of a hawk stalking its prey.

The sight of her sitting at the console, all ears, is one that Philibert returns to time and again, as he does with several of the dozens of characters presented. It’s a smart and subtle way of revealing what it’s like to work in a place where sounds takes precedence over images -- something that’s become virtually extinct in our visually overloaded society. Even the slightest comma in a piece of news copy can resonate wrongly over the airwaves and, as evidenced in a training session featured early on, the job of nearly everyone at the organization (which counts over 4,000 employees) is to make sure that everything sounds not only right, but perfect.

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For fans of Radio France’s many programs (this reviewer being one of them), there’s also something thrilling about finally seeing the people behind shows heard on a daily basis, especially widely popular ones like France Inter’s morning broadcast, headed up by Patrick Cohen, or its nightly call-in show, Le Telephone Sonne, hosted by the peppy Alain Bedouet. In most cases, they wind up looking more or less like they sound, as if their faces somehow grew out of their voices, rather than the opposite.

Philibert also delves into the difficulties of finding adequate recording environments, meeting deadlines and dealing with international crises from a far-away newsroom, although the film never gets too technical, favoring human behavior over logistical details. As such, there’s no major narrative line to cling to, which may be a turn-off to those viewers who like their documentaries written like Hollywood dramas, with a clear beginning, middle and end. (Maison either runs a tad too long or short, depending on one’s interest level.)

Featured alongside the many hosts are some of their invitees, including writers like Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, as well as various musicians -- from opera singers to hip-hop artists -- whose live performances provide an upbeat and cheeky soundtrack.


Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, Longride Inc., Arte France Cinema

Director: Nicolas Philibert, Katell Djian

Producer: Serge Lalou

Executive Producer: Virginie Guibbaud

Directors of photography: Nicolas Philibert, Katell Djian, Laurent Chevallier

Editor: Nicolas Philibert

Sound mixer: Olivier Do Huu

Sales Agent: Les Films du Losange

No rating, 104 minutes