12 Jours (12 Days)
Needless to say, the understanding of mental illness is a problematic subject. The opening credits of Raymond Depardon’s 12 Jours are therefore troublesome. Depardon invokes Michel Foucault and any polemic that glibly characterises psychiatric treatment as a simply insidious form of power and control deserves short shrift, just as it is reductive to accept all received clinical and psychological wisdom. What an unexpected relief then that this documentary is astounding: non-judgmental, provocative and fascinating.
12 days is the length of time before a judge must assess an involuntarily detained patient’s mental state for the purposes of release. This documentary records such meetings at a hospital in Lyon, switching shots between patient and judge. It is a simple technique which produces utterly profound results. We focus on the minutiae of their movements, the changes of expression that belie happiness and conceal disappointment. The names and ages are changed but the participants giving testimony to their health are real. We have a vast array of people: a short woman in her thirties calmly wishes to die; a young girl states she was repeatedly raped but cut herself only once; a constantly fidgeting man pleas to see his father and start a political movement (he murdered his father ten years ago); a woman speaks of the bullying she received at work; a nervous man in his twenties thinks he’s foiled a terrorist plot and will repay the hospital when he becomes a professional footballer; a mother is desperate to be with her daughter and she’s only on one form of medication now. By and large, most wish to be released; almost all are forced to stay by doctors’ recommendation. The unique environment is absorbing – the judges repeat that they are not doctors or counsellors, but the emotiveness of the situation and the patients’ often-unfocused tangential responses complicate the hearings. It’s only for so long that the judges can maintain talk of legal classifications and appropriate procedures. The mask has to slip.
Depardon creates intervals between the meetings with beautiful, haunting shots of the outside grounds and the streets nearby. These sections are accompanied by the exquisite, melancholy piano of Alexandre Desplat. It gives us peace from the endless conversation, although we still glimpses the medicated patients ambling around and muttering to themselves. The ethical implications of this documentary are a minefield to tackle. Its level of access is completely astonishing. But it’s inadequate to justify the film’s invasiveness by suggesting that it will improve public understanding. However, what else can we say? It’s the most moving and mature picture at Cannes.
12 Jours (12 Days) does not have a UK release date yet.