The movie that won director Nicolas Philibert a surprise top award at this year’s Berlin film festival is centered around the Adamant. This unique institution, a floating daycare facility for individuals with mental health issues anchored on the River Seine, is the main focus of the documentary. Despite the film’s engrossing nature, the institution itself remains somewhat mysterious. Philibert’s approach to filmmaking is slow and understated, with no narration. Without a guiding voice, it may seem like a risky decision to allow vulnerable patients to be in a center surrounded by water.
Walking across the metal walkway and entering the reception area of the ship is when the concept becomes clear. Dr. Eric Piel, the psychiatrist behind the idea of the Adamant and its construction in 2010, insisted on minimal walls in the center (the only doors I opened during my four-hour visit were to a therapist’s office and the restroom). The three-story space feels surprisingly open, with sunlight reflecting off the water and shining through the louvered windows, creating lively patterns on the wood-paneled walls. The noise of the busy three-lane Quai de la Rapée and the commotion of drinkers under the Pont Charles-de-Gaulle seem distant. It is a place that brings a sense of calm.
Being on water can make one more appreciative of others. Philibert, a 72-year-old with a gentle demeanor and spiky hair, guides me around the property as a nearby tour boat creates waves. I instinctively reach out to hold onto my guide as he explains, “We are in the heart of Paris, yet we feel like we are somewhere else. It’s a calming and restorative place for everyone, not just patients but also for filmmakers.”
The bold and nostalgic name of Adamant represents the center’s strong determination to oppose the prevailing trends. According to Arnaud Vallet, the head nurse of this government-funded facility who is focused and efficient, psychiatry in France has faced financial constraints and consolidation for over 25 years. Therefore, the goal is to challenge this harmful economic mindset.
The 230 individuals visiting the center, referred to as “passengers” by Philibert, come from the first four districts of Paris. They are able to visit the center between 9:15am and 5pm, Monday through Friday, after being recommended by their doctor or therapist. Many begin their visit with a cup of coffee from a counter made from recycled materials. The center’s 25 staff members lead workshops in music, radio, drawing, painting, and stained glass window-making. Once a week, the visitors cook together and there is a film club on Friday afternoons.
Philibert explains that the purpose of this mission is to provide care for individuals, but this does not guarantee a cure. The goal is to help passengers regain their ability to function in society while maintaining their unique identities.
This method, which allows individuals with mental illness to engage in daily tasks and routines through purposeful activities, known as occupational therapy, is not a recent concept. However, what sets the floating day center on the Seine apart is its emphasis on fostering creativity. Philibert explains, “The connections the passengers have to the outside world are delicate. Perhaps the key to strengthening them is through engaging in activities that prevent boredom and maintain their motivation.”
During the Renaissance, individuals with mental illness in central Europe were reportedly placed on a “ship of fools” and effectively exiled, sent on never-ending journeys through the rivers of the Rhineland and Flemish canals. In contrast, the Adamant is permanently docked in central Paris (where its engine would have been is now occupied by a library). By the end of the movie, the establishment seems more like an exclusive private club for talented outsider artists rather than a place that society wants to disregard. If you long to be a part of the crew, you are not alone: during my visit, author Marie Darrieussecq stops by to discuss a collaborative project.
Vallet explains that the boat’s name is a tribute to Adam Ant, the British musician who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Many of the regular visitors featured in the film possess rock star qualities. One such visitor is François, whose powerful and impressive performance of Téléphone’s 1979 hit La Bombe Humaine steals the show in the film’s opening scene. Another visitor, Patrice, is a white-haired and stoic individual who begins each day by writing poetry in the Adamant’s cafeteria and ends it by typing up his verses at home. Catherine, a dancer, can often be found stretching on the boat’s balcony and eventually becomes frustrated when she is not allowed to run her own workshop.
The individuals all face difficulties. François, whose smile reveals past struggles, admits, “Only medication prevents me from believing I am Jesus.” However, the passengers’ troubled states are not shown. Instead, Philibert’s interviews suggest that their ability to perceive art in unconventional and intense ways may actually be a blessing. Alexis, a young man with a chinstrap beard, lives in a world of constant, rapid associations where every word conjures an image. He shares, “Tall, slender men make me think of ‘injection’. A bald man reminds me of an orange.” Another passenger is extremely sensitive to noise and can only soothe the vibrations in his heart through music.
If the Adamant had a central character, it would be Frédéric Prieur. He sports aviator sunglasses and vibrant shirts with pointed collars. Upon our arrival, he greets us near the entrance like a ship’s captain, using a rolled-up magazine as his makeshift spyglass. Prior to joining the other passengers, Prieur was a struggling student at a university in Paris. “I was completely out of sync, lost in space,” he shares after attending a radio workshop. “I felt like I was going nowhere and was nobody. I was drowning.” On the ship, he devotes most of his time to immersing himself in culture, with a comprehensive and encyclopedic focus on the 1970s and 80s. “Movies, science fiction, comics, and pop music have kept me alive,” he reveals. “Otherwise, I don’t know who I would be – probably a wreck.”
Philibert is most famous for his successful documentary Être et Avoir, which focuses on a small school with only one teacher. However, he has a longstanding interest in individuals with mental illness and the facilities that care for them. In his 1996 film Every Little Thing, he follows patients at a psychiatric clinic in the Loire Valley as they prepare for their annual summer play. On the Adamant takes a different approach, observing the ship’s passengers without delving into their personal backgrounds or destinations. According to the director, his intention was to be in tune with the environment and let chance encounters guide him. He did not have a predetermined script or message to convey.
The film’s apparent simplicity adds to its interesting critical reception. Following its unexpected victory of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, some reviewers proposed that the jury selected this drama-free documentary as a middle ground between two stronger contenders: German director Christian Petzold’s Afire and French New Wave veteran Philippe Garrel’s The Plough.
This perspective disregards the clear appeal of the Adamant. Despite European cinema facing an existential crisis and struggling to prove its relevance against the rise of streaming platforms, the subjects of Philibert’s film still hold cinema and music in high importance. The key to the Adamant’s success may be that it serves not only as a refuge for its regular visitors, but also for those who deeply value art. One of the reasons why François’s performance of “La Bombe Humaine” is so captivating is because it is raw and unfiltered in its artistry. As he sings with closed eyes, “the detonator is right there, next to your heart, the human bomb is you,” the impact is powerful. I ask Philibert if the passengers of the Adamant are better and more pure artists than myself. He responds, “It is true that the passengers are often very uninhibited. They express themselves in a direct manner and are not bound by conventions. We, as normopaths, have lost that ability.”