Retour en Normandie

 (Nicolas Philibert, France, 2007) 113 minutes


A film by: Nicolas Philibert
Producers: Serge Lalou, Gilles Sandoz
Cinematography: Katell Djan
Editor: Nicolas Philibert
Music: Andre Veil
Joseph Leportier
Marie-Louise Leportier
Nicole Picard
Gilbert Peschet
Blandine Peschet

Reviews and notes

Admirably direct with its storytelling but enormously rich in its resonance, Nicolas Philibert's follow-up to To Be and To Have sees him embark on a geographical and chronological journey that embraces both the political and personal. In 1975, Philibert assisted director René Allio on a film inspired by Michel Foucault's book, Moi, Pierre Rivière..., about a murder that took place in the 1830s; his work included finding and persuading local farming folk to act in the film. Three decades on, he returned to Normandy to catch up with those people. From this simple conceit, Philibert develops an extraordinary wealth of interrelated themes, including memory, history, crime, madness, family ties and rural life, in a film that's wonderfully warm, wise, funny and philosophical. A work of great understatement, modesty and discretion, it is also, by the end, extremely moving.
– Northwest Film Forum.

More than 30 years ago the French filmmaker Nicolas Philibert began his career as an assistant director on René Allio’s true-crime drama I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother ... Adapted from Michel Foucault’s celebrated account (based on the killer’s jailhouse confession) of a young Norman peasant who in 1835 used a billhook to commit triple murder, the movie was filmed only a few miles from the crime scene, mainly with local residents.

In BACK TO NORMANDY, Mr. Philibert returns to the region to catch up with the cast and relive an experience that was pivotal in forging his artistic identity. But he has more in mind than an indulgence of nostalgia. As he chats with the families whose lives were briefly touched by the arcane disruptions of moviemaking, his visit yields a palimpsest of observations on work, rationality and the ineluctable connections between history and modernity.

As though to emphasize this, the movie opens with the bloody birth of a piglet and the traditional, hard-to-watch cruelties — snipping, injecting, slapping — that accompany it. The animal’s frantic squeals are uncomfortably echoed in a segment of the murder scene from I, Pierre Rivière..., one of a number of clips that serve as a bridge between the two films and the villagers’ dual roles as actors and interviewees.

Structured around a series of relaxed, lighthearted conversations (most of which take place outdoors), BACK TO NORMANDY has a bucolic placidity that grounds the film in the lulling rhythms of country life and the daily chores of farming and animal husbandry. At times not much appears to be happening, until you realize that the director’s sidelong, subtle approach has teased out modern-day parallels to the issues that surrounded the Rivière case.

Charles and Annie Lihou speak movingly of the impact of their daughter’s schizophrenia on the rest of the family (Pierre Rivière’s trial was one of the earliest examples of psychiatry’s rocky relationship with the law). Annick Bisson — who, as a 16-year-old, played the luckier of the killer’s two sisters — now works with mentally handicapped adults.

Though rooted in 19th-century tragedy, BACK TO NORMANDY is an overwhelmingly cheerful film (the merry Borel family views its patriarch’s thespian adventure as nothing short of hilarious) that explores the frustrations of filmmaking alongside its impact on an isolated community. Admirers of To Be and to Have, Mr. Philibert’s delightful study of a rural schoolteacher, may find his elliptical style less engrossing this time out, but from bloody start to poignant end, BACK TO NORMANDY is never less than an extraordinary journey through time, memory and the repercussions of a baffling, bygone crime.
- Jeannette Catsoulis, The New York Times, 25 July 2008.

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