As Nicolas Philibert’s new documentary, La Maison De La Radio,demonstrates, access does not guarantee insight. Philibert (To Be And To Have) made his name with films that combine an uncoercive approach with an observational style tailored to the material. His 1992 breakthrough, In The Land Of The Deaf, for instance, uses a bouncy handheld camera to capture the dramatic rhythms and inflections of sign language. In profiling the French public broadcasting agency Radio France (the film is named after its headquarters), Philibert adopts a multi-camera style that breaks up conversations and broadcasts into static close-ups; this seems fitting at first, since most of his subjects spend their days sitting down in front of microphones or computer screens. But regardless of its formal smarts, the movie—shot over six months, but edited into the shape of a single day, beginning with the morning news and ending with a late-night music show—often feels purposeless.
It’s not that Philibert has a shortage of subject matter. Throughout, he portrays people working at every level of the organization: on-air newsreaders, producers pitching stories to one other, musicians rehearsing for broadcast, sound engineers recording a radio drama, a field correspondent covering the Tour De France on a motorcycle, a coffee cart being pushed around the building’s circular hallways, interviewers chatting with luminaries like Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, an operator at a call-in show, and a blind host writing her script on a Braille keyboard. However, Philibert’s haphazard intercutting—meant to suggest continuous, hive-like activity—makes these activities seem pointless and unrelated: The musicians never stop rehearsing, the producers never decide on a story, and Eco never finished answering a question.
Though the movie’s scope suggests the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman—a filmmaker to whom Philibert’s work has often been compared in the past—it lacks the sense of authorial perspective that defines Wiseman’s work, which uses commentary-free observational filmmaking to make underhanded social statements. Here, shots are framed with conceptual indifference. Aside from the Tour De France segments (the only scenes in the movie to be shot entirely handheld), La Maison lacks the warmth that’s characterized Philibert’s best work. Eventually, the film begins to resemble a cross between a radio station’s webcast and a security-camera feed.