The Adamant is both the setting and the star of the film that earned director Nicolas Philibert a surprise top prize at the Berlin film festival this year. But in his absorbing documentary, this institution – a floating daycare centre for people with mental health problems moored on the River Seine – somehow remains a bit of an enigma. Philibert’s slow, unassuming films don’t use narration, and in the absence of a contextualising voice you might assume that it’s a terrible idea to invite potentially vulnerable patients into a centre surrounded by water.
It’s only when you walk over the metal gangway and step into the ship-length reception area that the concept starts to make sense. Eric Piel, the psychiatrist who conceived of the Adamant and supervised its construction in 2010, insisted the centre should have as few walls as possible (the only doors I opened in my four hours there were to a therapist’s room and the toilet). The three-storey space feels surprisingly airy: sunlight bounces off the water and streams through the louvred windows, painting animated squiggles on to the wood-panelled walls. The screeching traffic on the three-lane Quai de la Rapée and the squabbling drunks under the Pont Charles-de-Gaulle sound far away. It’s a place that calms the nerves.
There’s also something about being on water that makes you more appreciative of your fellow human beings. As Philibert, a gently spoken, spiky-haired 72-year-old, walks me around the premises and a passing tour boat rocks the waves, I reach out to hold on to my guide. “We are in the very centre of Paris,” he says, “and yet we feel we are elsewhere. It’s a very soothing, healing place for everybody. Not just for patients but also for film-makers.”
The Adamant’s swashbuckling, Victorian-sounding name is symbolic of the centre’s determination to go against the currents of the times. “For more than 25 years, psychiatry in France has had to cope with money-saving measures and the merging of sectors,” says Arnaud Vallet, the state-funded centre’s lean and intense head nurse. “So the idea is to subvert this deadly economic logic.”
The 230 “passengers” (Philibert prefers this term to “patients”) are from Paris’s first four arrondissements. Having been referred by their doctor or therapist, they can drop by from Monday to Friday between 9.15am and 5pm. Most start with a strong coffee from behind a recycled shopfront counter. Afterwards they can partake in workshops for music, radio, drawing, painting or stained glass window-making, hosted by the centre’s 25 staff. The passengers cook together once a week and there’s a film club on Friday afternoons.
“If there is a mission here,” says Philibert, “it is to give people some kind of care. But that doesn’t mean they are going to be cured. The aim is to restore the passengers’ capacity to exist in life, in society, while keeping their individuality.”
Such an approach – enabling those with mental illness to participate in everyday life through meaningful activities, AKA occupational therapy – is hardly new. What makes the floating daycentre on the Seine different, though, is its stress on creativity. “The links the passengers have to the world are extremely fragile,” says Philibert. “Maybe the way to strengthen them is through activities that avoid boredom and keep their desire alive.”
During the Renaissance, mentally ill people in central Europe were reportedly boarded on to a “ship of fools” and effectively banished, sent on permanent voyages through the rivers of the Rhineland and Flemish canals. The Adamant, by contrast, is permanently moored in central Paris (a library sits where its engine would have been). By the end of the film, the centre comes across more like a cool private members club for gifted outsider artists than a place society wants to ignore. If you wish you could join the crew, you wouldn’t be the only one: during my visit, the novelist Marie Darrieussecq drops by to discuss a joint project.
The boat’s name, Vallet explains, is also in reference to Adam Ant, the British singer diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and there are rock star qualities to most of the regular visitors featured in the film. Take François, whose intense and brilliant rendition of Téléphone’s 1979 pop number La Bombe Humaine gives the film a showstopper in its very first scene. There’s also white-haired and stoical Patrice, who starts every day by penning a poem in the Adamant’s cafeteria – and ends it by typing up his verse at home. Then there’s Catherine, a dancer who is constantly limbering up on the boat’s balcony and eventually explodes with frustration that she isn’t allowed run her own workshop.
They all have troubles. “Only the meds stop me from thinking I’m Jesus,” says François, whose gap-toothed grin speaks of less happy times. But we never see the passengers in their troubled states. Instead Philibert’s interviews suggest that their ability to experience art in lateral, more intense ways could actually be a blessing. Alexis, a young man with a chinstrap beard, lives in a world of hyperactive associative thinking where every word begets an image. “Very tall thin men,” he says, “they remind me of ‘injection’. A bald man reminds me of an orange.” Another passenger is extremely sensitive to noise and can only calm the vibrations in his heart by listening to music.
If On the Adamant has a main character, it is Frédéric Prieur, who wears aviator sunglasses and bright shirts with tapered collars. When Philibert and I arrive, he greets us by the entrance like the ship’s captain, a rolled-up magazine functioning as his spyglass. Before he joined the passengers, Prieur was a student at a Paris university, but was struggling. “I was completely out of tune, out of space,” he says, fresh from a radio workshop. “I was nowhere and nobody. I was drowning.” On the ship, he spends most of his time immersing himself in culture, with an exhaustive, near-encyclopaedic focus on the 1970s and 80s. “Movies, science fiction, comics and pop music have helped me stay alive,” he says. “Otherwise I don’t know what I’d be – a wreck maybe.”
Philibert – best known for Être et Avoir, his commercially successful 2002 documentary about a single-teacher school – has a long-running interest in people with mental illness and the places that look after them. In 1996’s Every Little Thing, he followed patients at a psychiatric clinic in the woods of the Loire Valley as they rehearsed their annual summer play. On the Adamant doesn’t have an equivalent structure: it loosely observes the ship’s passengers, many of whom remain unnamed, as they drop by but does not track where they come from or where they go next. “My idea,” the director explains, “was to be in synchronicity with the place and let myself be led by whomever I met. I didn’t come with a script or any message to deliver.”
This apparent artlessness makes the film’s critical success intriguing. After its shock win of the Golden Bear at Berlin, some critics suggested the jury only settled on this drama-free documentary as a compromise because they couldn’t choose between two more obvious contenders: German director Christian Petzold’s Afire and French New Wave veteran Philippe Garrel’s The Plough.
Such a view ignores On the Adamant’s evident appeal. European cinema may be in an existential crisis, struggling to prove its relevance amid the deluge of streaming platforms. But to the subjects of Philibert’s film, cinema and music still truly matter. The secret behind its success may lie in the fact that the Adamant isn’t just something of a life raft for its regular visitors, but for anyone who still cares deeply about art. One reason François’s rendition of La Bombe Humaine is so thrilling is that its artistry is unchecked and unfiltered. When he sings, eyes closed, that “the detonator is right there, next to your heart, the human bomb is you”, it cuts straight through. What if the passengers of the Adamant are better, purer artists than yourself, I say to Philibert. He replies: “It is true that the passengers are often very uninhibited. They say things in a very direct manner. They are unrestricted by convention. We normopaths no longer know how to do that.”