La Maison de la Radio tunes in to the French airwaves more to breathe the stirring air than to stir any waves. There are no media scandals revealed, no "gotcha" journalism unleashed, but rather an invitation to take in the yeasty atmosphere of France's premier public radio entity, Radio France.
France's counterpart to NPR and the BBC accompanies the daily lives of millions of French listeners. For them, the documentary puts faces to the trusty voices that entertain, inform and coddle. For newcomers, it's a fascinating lab tour of what makes the French French. And for director Nicolas Philibert, it's an answer to the question, How do you capture a non-visual medium on film?
To get going, he strings together newscasts into a boisterous montage. We catch snippets about unemployment in France; animal sex life in London's Natural History museum; shaking towers in pre-tsunami Tokyo; Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. The chatter cascades out to a citizenry in need of, maybe even obsessed with, cultivated exchange.
La Maison's opening sequence serves as the aural equivalent of an establishing shot. Over a score of jazzy uptempo beeps and gleeful techno gibberish, the camera next settles on the bastion of all this disembodied culture, Radio France's headquarters at the Maison de la Radio. Might its circular design suggest a citadel? Plainly, this institution is charged with safeguarding French civilization.
Philibert has not merely brought cameras onto the outlet's premises; he has retransmitted its mission with his ears and eyes. From newscasts, author interviews and in-house musical performances to celebrity appearances, quiz shows and after-hours call-ins, the film serves up a rich mille-feuille of programming and the personalities behind it.
In 99 minutes, we live a virtual day in the life-cycle of Radio France. Some of the most insightful material unfolds like a mini-mystery. What's this wierd gizmo a newscaster is stabbing with her thumb? As we discover, it's the braille keyboard that Lætitia Bernard uses to craft her news journal (for the house's regional France Bleu 107.1channel). How do you hook an audience? Along with a rookie reporter, we get tips from a veteran news editor on the tricks of the trade, including when to breathe.
Some stories develop over time, including serial snatches of the Tour de France race as reported by sound engineer/journalist Bernard Cantin from the backseat of a motorcycle. This on-the-road coverage was produced for Radio France's France Inter station, which we learn through rapid-fire quips at a news meeting, isn't targeted to Justin Bieber fans. For its psychographic, it's best to "bring in a sociologist -- from the Left."
Another France Inter sampling, Un temps de Pauchon, features comedian host Hervé Pauchon's interview with a storm chaser who waxes ecstatic about thunderbolts but reveals little about his identity lest he appear seeking publicity for his medical practice. (Vive la différence!) Sixty-something singer and slam artist Tata Milouda recalls her tough start in France as a Moroccan immigrant with neither money nor French. Rap artists in fur hats, a man in a purple mask, more xylophonists than you knew existed -- the cast of eccentrics is part of the charm here.
One of the pleasant side effects of the film is that the enthusiasm of Radio France's devoted staff is contagious. Yet for all its enjoyments, La Maison gets a bit cluttered. Philibert has covered a dizzying array of content production, from the poignantly sublime to the delightfully ridiculous. It might have been more gratifying to streamline the scope and follow fewer subjects for more drama and depth, as he did in his 2002 schoolroom documentary To Be and to Have. Still, La Maison de la Radio is an anthology worth hearing -- and a spectacle worth glimpsing.