Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

  • Reviewed at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

One of the intellectual legacies of the 1968 student-led revolts in Paris has been the pursuit of a fairer, more empathetic approach to both the consideration and treatment of madness in French society. Spurred by such texts as Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation (1961) and the pioneering psychoanalytic work of Félix Guattari, thinkers and medical practitioners of a more radical bent have sought to obliterate social conventions that have worked to alienate and stigmatise those deemed mentally unwell – pointing to those very conventions as sources of mental illness themselves – while seeking new ways to cure patients via empowerment.

The documentary feature On the Adamant, which, to the visible surprise of filmmaker Nicolas Philibert, was awarded the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, turns its attention to one of those projects in the present day. The Adamant is a barge docked at the foot of the Charles de Gaulle bridge on Paris’s Right Bank that welcomes daily visits by mental patients residing in the city’s first four arrondisements. It operates as a sort of floating refuge, offering a rotating range of services – from a café to visual art workshops to film screenings – all of which are organised in part by the patients themselves, together with a revolving staff that includes psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, educators, specialists, and music and art therapists.

The film depicts the inner workings of the Adamant and its mostly nameless protagonists, a decision that effectively blurs the distinction between patient and staff, true to the egalitarian strivings of the place. Rather than relying on a linear narrative or a rigid analysis of the Adamant’s functions, Philibert’s scenes glide between collective meetings determining schedules and events, art therapy workshops, and portraits of the patients whose recurring presences form the core of the film. While the nature of each patient’s affliction varies, On the Adamant has no intention to diagnose, but rather reveals how compelling they are as individual personalities. Contrary to stereotypical impressions of the mentally ill as either raving or catatonic, the Adamant’s visitors are all seemingly well aware of their limitations and challenges, which they are able to discuss candidly. There’s the middle-aged woman who talks with great stoicism about the most painful moment in her life, when her son had to be removed from her care by social workers, and the subsequent work she has put in to rebuilding their relationship. There’s the bohemian artist with demonstrable talent who only triggers suspicions of unwellness when he suddenly accuses Wim Wenders of having stolen the idea for Paris, Texas (1984) from him. In fact, there is a lot of great art showcased in the barge’s art therapy workshops, confirming what proponents of Art Brut have long understood: that the gulf between genius and madness is perhaps not so great.

On the Adamant (2023)

On the Adamant further destabilises reflexive judgments of insanity with moments of stunning lucidity, as when a patient calmly explains to the camera, “Sure, it happens sometimes that a mad person attacks a police officer. But it is extremely rare. Whenever we hear the news of a terrorist attack, when the media characterises the terrorist as ‘mad’, we have to laugh. Mad people are not violent. Most of us are, in fact, just extremely fragile people.” Occurring approximately halfway through the film, this powerful line forces the viewer to confront common fears that are rooted in stereotypes. We don’t need to be mad to have sensitivities, certain emotional or psychological wounds, that distinguish us from other individuals and render us vulnerable to external stimuli to which others are immune. Seen from this perspective, it is easier for us to understand, for instance, the young man whose extreme sensitivity to human noise simply makes it difficult for him to go outside, and to appreciate his self-developed coping mechanism – the adornment of certain magnets and crystals around his neck to purportedly absorb and deflect the frequencies that disturb him – even though we might remain doubtful of the science behind such a solution. In these moments, empathy triumphs over scepticism; we are granted a deeper look at recognisably human behaviour of which, in another context, we might have been more dismissive.

While a more detached perspective might have yielded more clinical insights into the accomplishments and failures of the Adamant as a psychosocial experiment, the central achievement of On the Adamant is its destigmatisation of the individuals portrayed, the path to empathy opened by its annihilation of that distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’.