Memory is also found brilliantly manifested in a large number of madmen.

– Dr. Vastel (1)

In 1991, documentary film student Alison Millar recorded life in the home of of Fr Michael Cleary, Ireland’s “Singing Priest”. Michael was looked after by his housekeeper Phyllis Hamilton and her son (2). Millar failed to notice that Hamilton was Cleary’s mistress, and Ross their child. A decade later, in Être et avoir (To Be and to Have, 2002), Nicolas Philibert was so busy propping up Georges Lopez’s persona as a “wise”, “exemplary” and “inspirational” primary schoolteacher (3), that he was shocked when his mercenary subject later sued him and the film’s producers for a percentage of that successful film’s profits (4). I know such comments are snide and easy to make in hindsight; but such impercipience suggests the limitations of a documentary mode happy to record mere surface. The experience certainly burnt Philibert who in his next film retreated into himself, or at least into his own professional past, the making of René Allio’s Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère… (1976), on which he had worked as assistant director. It is no coincidence that with Retour en Normandie (Return to Normandy) Philibert should abandon his seemingly “objective” direct cinema approach to produce his most formally complex and self-reflexive film to date.

Moi, Pierre Rivière is a docudrama based on a dossier compiled by historian Michel Foucault and his research team at the Collège de France (5). On 3 June 1835, 20-year-old farmhand Pierre Rivière murdered his pregnant mother, sister and brother and went into hiding in the Normandy countryside. Before he was caught, judicial and doctors’ reports, examinations and certificates, witness statements, letters and newspaper articles suggested that Rivière was mentally defective, prone to scaring children, shrinking from women, torturing birds and animals, devising elaborate weapons and generally living in an unhealthy, private, fantasy world. In prison, he was permitted to write an account of his actions and motives; far from demonstrating inarticulate idiocy, the manuscript was recognised at once for its singular sensibility, and has become a classic of French prose. It is one of the earliest texts of peasant self-consciousness, a detailed social history of mid-19th century Normandy, and a systematic account of individual, social and familial dysfunction. Far from “explaining” the murders, however, the manuscript was used and interpreted by opposing sides to determine the extent of Rivière’s guilt, in particular those involved in the burgeoning psychiatric profession, at a time when doctors were competing with judges to determine criminals’ responsibilities for their actions.

Allio was perhaps inspired by Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson’s recreations of Joan of Arc’s trial (6); Moi, Pierre Rivière was also made a decade after another ambivalent account of rural murder, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965-1966; filmed by Richard Brooks in 1967). It was essentially a re-enactment of Foucault’s documents, using “real” peasants and farmers to play their antecedents; Philibert’s job was to scout for players and locations. The book’s commentary focused largely on the medico-legal, textual, institutional and ideological implications of the case; Foucault admitted it neglected other “major aspects” of the memoir, such as its “marvellous document of peasant ethnology” (7). Allio’s aim seems to have been to rectify that: not only does he resurrect the faces, customs, costumes and interiors of the period, linger over contemporary farming methods, and analyse the social atmosphere of a particular French village; but he returns these peasants their gestures and voice. Where the local idiosyncrasies of their language were ironed out by the dominant, standardising legal formulae in the official documents, Allio’s peasants speak in their own accents, rhythms and tones (8).

Retour en Normandie aspires to the multi-vocal structure of its ur-text. It “speaks” to the living and the dead; just as Foucault narrated Rivière’s history through documents, so Philibert foregrounds the archival process, archives being the physical remains of past or passing lived experience. Three classes of documented memory tell the story: 1) “paper” documents, from Rivière’s manuscript, fetishistically montaged behind the opening credits, to the “thick files” of letters, drafts, notes, sketches, press cuttings and diary in Allio’s archive consulted by Philibert at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine in Caen (9); 2) visual evidence : photographs, stills, contact sheets, lengthy extracts from Moi, Pierre Rivière; and 3) oral history, the testimonies of the film’s non-professional actors, as well as Philibert’s deceptively reticent voiceover. The film is punctuated by long sequences of the surrounding countryside and the farmers working it; as with Être et avoir, this conflates the local focus of the film with the metaphysical, elemental and cyclical. But these formal tableaux – landscapes, still lifes, portraits and genre scenes – also allude to Allio’s first vocation as a painter, and in particular his love of Cézanne, whose images of Mont Sainte-Victoire are both stubbornly local and classically timeless. Indeed, such respect is indicative of a major strand in the film. Philibert attempts to situate himself within various lineages, whether through remembering fathers and father figures (10), or reflecting on his place in the history of cinema, in particular within the documentary form – from the highpoints of the Lumières and Vertov to the bogus contrivances of much contemporary non-fiction – with allusions to his previous films (11), even reversing the norm of documentary interviewing by having his subjects discuss him, his role, his story to Philibert offscreen, while they compose and edit shots for him.

As so often in his work, Philibert employs in Retour en Normandie what might be termed a “double perspective”: the linear chronology narrating Allio’s difficulties to get the film made – this is told in a relatively conventional documentary style, with Philibert’s voiceover at its most prominent; and the present-day portrait of a rural village affected by its participation in that film. Such a neat division soon breaks down, temporal tenses – past, imperfect, present, future, even conditional – dissolving into or looping back onto each other through sound and image. Philibert’s and Allio’s films are in continual dialogue: no scene, no one shot, however simply staged, is “innocent”; it is, to use a buzzword beloved of Foucault and his acolytes, a palimpsest, the present surface layer of many previous images, texts, experiences, narratives and perspectives. Ignore these and you lose the memory the film is so quietly anxious to preserve. The confluence of these double perspectives occurs in the final, seemingly offhand revelation; spoken over shots of a glistening river, leading into lost footage of the silent dead, it has all the devastating and mysterious power of late Godard. Inspired by filial devotion, both Pierre Rivière and Nicolas Philibert craft memoirs of “stupefying beauty”.


  1. Dr. Vastel, “Medical Opinion”, I Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother…: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century, ed. Michel Foucault, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1978, p. 134. First published as Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère… in 1973.
  2. This footage was later incorporated into Millar’s documentary At Home with the Clearys (2008).
  3. Jim Hillier, “Être et avoir”, Barry Keith Grant and Jim Hillier, BFI Screen Guides: 100 Documentary Films, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009, p. 56; Peter Matthews, “Être et avoir”, Sight and Sound vol. 13, no. 8, August 2003, p. 45; blurb included with the Artificial Eye DVD release of Être et avoir, United Kingdom, 2009.
  4. Hillier, pp. 57-58.
  5. Foucault (ed.)
  6. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer) and Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962, Robert Bresson).
  7. Michel Foucault, “Foreward”, in Foucault (ed.), p. xiii.
  8. Although according to Emilie Lihou, who played Pierre’s grandmother, the actors didn’t speak in patois, which may have been an alienating authenticity too far (Lihou interviewed in À propos de Pierre Rivière [1975, Pascal Kané]). This “making of” was the first film about Allio’s Moi, Pierre Rivière. It is similar in form to Retour en Normandie, alternating cast and crew interviews with sequences of agricultural labour.
  9. Appropriately for this film about personal pilgrimage, IMEC is housed in a former abbey. Foucault’s papers are also stored here; Philibert quotes Allio’s letters to him. Foucault’s cameo was cut from the final film.
  10. Geoff Andrew, “Norman Inquests”, Sight and Sound vol. 18, no. 2, February 2008, p. 28. Of all the texts dealing with the murders – Rivière, Foucault, Allio and Philibert – only Kané’s gives space to the mother’s point-of-view, appropriately voiced by the actress playing her.
  11. Difficulties of communicating and learning language in Le pays des sourds (In the Land of the Deaf, 1992); mental illness in La moindre des choses (Every Little Thing, 1997); the institutionalisation of memory in Un animal, des animaux (1996) and La Ville Louvre (1990), the recording of rural life in Être et avoir; the focus on work in all of them.

Retour en Normandie/Return to Normandy (2008 France 113 mins)

Prod Co: CNC/Canal+/ France Télévision Distribution/ Les Films d’Ici/ Maïa Films/TPS Star/Arte France Cinéma Prod: Serge Lalou Dir, Ed: Nicolas Philibert Phot: Katell Djian

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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