Monday, September 02, 2013

La Maison de la Radio: Behind the Scenes at Radio France

It looks like a massive government building, because it is.  The imposing headquarters of Radio France, known as “La Maison de la Radio” is home to the various networks, programs, orchestras, and chorale groups administered by the national broadcaster.  Documentarian Nicholas Philibert allows interested viewers the opportunity to roam through its curved halls in La Maison de la Radio (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

This is not exactly a day in the life of Radio France.  Filmed between January and July of 2011, Philibert nonetheless presents the constituent programs roughly in their proper daily order, throwing in some Wiseman-esque observational details for good measure.  Viewers will be a fly on the fly watching a rookie news brief reader gets his head handed to him by a veteran editor and listen in on various editorial meetings, one of which inadvertently gives the game away.  Should they discuss the “Justin Beiber Phenomenon?”  Maybe, but only if they can book a “leftwing sociologist.”  Ha ha, everyone laughs, because its true.

There are plenty of snoozy NPR moments in Maison, but from time to time, they are interrupted by intriguing cultural soundbites.  Partly recorded during the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, we hear at least one insightful commentary on the events in Fukushima.  Likewise, Umberto Eco on the publicity circuit is definitely documentary-worthy.

Nonetheless, the best material in Maison involves music in some way or another.  Without question, the film’s most engaging talking head is the classical music host, discussing his role as a cultural caretaker, while peeking over his piles of CDs. 

There are also two terrific musical performances from distinctly French but hard to classify artists.  An unusual vibes-marimba-glockenspiel percussion ensemble (consisting of Cecile Beune, Emmanuel Curt, Francois Deforges, Jean-Baptiste Leclerc, Catherine Lenert, and Gilles Rancitelli) contributes the wonderfully textured “Transphère.”  Shortly thereafter, stylistically idiosyncratic vocalist Antonio Placer performs his striking “Republicana,” accompanied by jazz pianist Jean-Marie Machado.  Reflecting a sense of his good taste, Philibert also licenses a brief excerpt of the MJQ’s ever elegant “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

Frankly, Philibert does not serve his own interests particularly well as an editor.  Far too often, he cuts away from promising sequences to return to the same workaday business that started the film.  Quiet yet scattershot, Maison might charm hardcore Radio France listeners, but it is likely to frustrate everyone else.  At least there is some rewarding music for diehard Francophiles and fans of Philibert’s previous docs (such as Nénette) when La Maison de la Radio opens this Wednesday (9/4) at New York’s Film Forum.