Journal de France is a connoisseur’s treat for Francophiles and fans of Raymond Depardon. “Fans of whom?” cries someone. Depardon is the great, reclusive documentarist of (recently) Profils paysans and La vie moderne. Claudine Nougaret, long his partner and sound engineer, co-directed this tribute to a filmmaker, now 71, whose genius has been finding plenty in apparent paucity. Peasant faces; empty French landscapes (but with so many tells about history, heritage, husbandry); foreign deserts…
There are fabulous filmic flowers in the Nougaret-selected anthology of his past work which forms Journal’s main substance, from youthful photojournalism (a TV portrait of young Giscard d’Estaing) to the Chad desert hostage scoop that inspired Depardon’s only fiction feature La captive du désert. Yet these in turn are “scooped” by his own present-tense film sequences, utterly compelling, as he roams France in a camper van with just an ancient tripod camera for company.
He photographs anything he sees, from dilapidated corner shops to four old men framed in a doorway. He finds the magic in things poised between “was” and “is”. I loved the absurd towering sign, once attached to a diner, that says “Gril’” and is accompanied by two bits of wall bearing “ouvert” signs. The place is open, for sure. To the elements. To memory and history.
Journal de France is really two films, awkwardly joined but rejoicing in a paradox the French, of all, must surely love. The present-day sequences are about the past, about what exists no more except as haunting or speaking remnant. The past footage, from Depardon’s archives, seems much more “now” and à la mode: busy, more anonymous photojournalism, lit by the eye and mind of a man who would go on to do so much more with so much less.