’12 Days’ (’12 Jours’): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon (‘Modern Life’) chronicles the patients of a psychiatric ward in his latest documentary ’12 Days,’ which premiered out of competition in Cannes.

After touring the Gallic countryside for his recent documentaries France, Journal de France and Modern Life, photographer-director Raymond Depardon returns to the institutional interiors of some of his most famous work in 12 Days (12 Jours), a film set inside the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Lyon.

A cross between Depardon’s Delits flagrants and The 10th Judicial Court: Judicial Hearings, which focused on French criminal law, and his 1988 film Urgences, which was also set in a psychiatric ward, this fascinating study of human behavior chronicles a legal procedure whereby individuals committed by force must appear before a judge within 12 days of their internment — thus the film’s title — to determine whether or not they are fit for release.

The Bottom Line

A modern master’s look at madness.

Rarely, if only in Urgences or classics like Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies or John Huston’s Let There Be Light, has a filmmaker been able to document madness in such a direct way, with Depardon showing extreme compassion in how he captures patients pouring their hearts out to the judge, in a sort of legal confessional. These people may be deeply disturbed, but they come across as highly empathetic and even quite funny despite the very dark lives they lead. Screening in Cannes’ Official Selection, this quietly riveting film deserves, like most of Depardon’s work, to be seen by wider audiences.

A haunting opening tracking shot takes us through the drab neon-lit hallways of a special unit inside the Centre Hospitalier Le Vinatier, where at-risk patients are brought in by cops or loved ones to receive urgent psychiatric treatment. Given fake names in the film but otherwise partaking in real discussions, the patients tell their stories to a rotating team of local magistrates, who, with the help of medical records and testimony from lawyers and doctors, must decide if they will remain institutionalized.

Depardon shoots the interviews in simple shot-reverse shots, with the judges listening to tales of depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses that render the patients unable to function. One man is brought in for punching a random stranger in the head, and then pleads to be let go. A woman claims to suffer from severe workplace harassment at the French telecom company Orange, asking to be kept inside so she doesn’t have to return to her job. (“I’m an open wound,” she says at the end of her interview.) Another clearly deranged man argues with a judge that he’s fit to move back in with his family, until we learn later on that he killed his own father.

By keeping the camera focused on the faces of patients and judges alike, Depardon — working again with sound recordist and producer Claudine Nougaret — reveals shreds of humanity, and even moments of hilarity, in these closed-door sessions. And as much as the patients are clearly in need of assistance (almost all of them have their sentences prolonged by the judge), they reveal a certain grasp on reality, as well as an understanding of their conditions vis-a-vis the rest of society. “You have psychiatric problems, you know?” a judge says to a young man at one point, to which the latter responds: “Isn’t that sort of the case with everyone?”

While most of 12 Days is set indoors, Depardon occasionally takes his camera outside for a few beautifully photographed sequences of the hospital grounds and surrounding landscape. Accompanied by the music of Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat, these scenes serve as a counterpoint to the stark atmosphere within the ward, where heavily medicated patients wander around like zombies or scream from behind closed doors. The more we see of the outside world, the more we know why these people want to be set free.

Production company: Palmeraie et Desert
Director: Raymond Depardon
Producer: Claudine Nougaret
Director of photography: Raymond Depardon
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
87 minutes