By now, we have learnt not to be deterred by the apparent mundanity of a documentary’s subject matter. Clever documentarians have made compelling films about the most tedious and esoteric topics. Take an arenaceous field of study, frame it with a three act structure, and suddenly Donkey Kong or high finance or the history of felt become stories we want to hear.
The problem with La Maison de la Radio is that while Nicolas Philibert’s object of study — Radio France, the French national broadcaster — is certainly dry and unexciting, the film lacks that prenominate narrative structure, or any variation of it necessary to draw in outsiders, which number will likely include anyone who isn’t French or desperately into the mechanisms of public radio.
Not that Nicolas Philibert is an unskilled filmmaker. His best known work, the 2002 documentary Être et Avoir, won numerous awards and critical acclaim. The structure of La Maison de la Radio is not confused or misconceived. It is an artistic choice. Shot over the course of six months, the film is edited to present a “day in the life” style portrait of Radio France and its various stations (France Inter, France Culture, France Musique, et al), housed as they are in the eponymous Maison de la Radio on the banks of the Seine in central Paris. We are shown snippets of quotidian tasks and assignments within the broadcaster’s offices and studios, and occasionally from outside broadcasts.
We eavesdrop on a senior correspondent reviewing a junior presenter’s work and explaining to him the many issues she has with his copy. We sit in on an editorial meeting as editors and journalists throw around stories for their next show. We watch another editor gnomically enquire of the other end of her phone, “Who won, the horse or the cyclist?” as she hunts for one of those stories which only broadcast journalists think of as “much loved”. These scenes are essentially an episode of The Office without any jokes. The fact that they’re set in a big radio station does not lend them any air of exoticism or glamour. This is work and it is presented as such.
The film moves flatly from space to space. We are not told the names or job titles of anyone. This helps to deny the film any obvious arcs. We visit some people more than once, but when the viewer quickly realizes that their identity for the purposes of the film is what we see them doing rather than their “character” or their position, we stop trying to construct a narrative for them. We realize that the film is truly showing us a scattershot view of an organization, and that the individual is not the point. If there is an arc, it is simply chronological. Workers enter the building in the morning, and the shows cycle round from breakfast to late night to daybreak. One matutinal Paris skyline follows another.
Thankfully, our time within the iconic walls of La Maison de la Radio is not limited to meetings and desk work. We do get to see some of Radio France’s output, which is light relief given the rest of the film. For example, we watch the recording of a quiz show as the contestants decide whether to bank their winnings or go for the “big” money jackpot. One suspects that the star prize is that they’re allowed to leave when the agonizing, spirit-corroding show is over and never ever have to come back. We get to witness a live session by the experimental musician Pierre Bastien, which is genuinely interesting; the instrument he has constructed looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than something on which to play a tune.
On the subject of music, the sparse soundtrack features the French vocal group Les Grandes Gueules at prominent moments. It’s so hyper-Gallic as to be a cliché: it’s Jeanne Moreau sitting under a parasol eating baguettes with Michel Platini while he shrugs indifferently. It’s delightful, but if you find yourself trying to rip the speakers out of your television in fury, I fully understand. It features an uncommon amount of scatting.
The music of Les Grandes Gueules, which could only ever come from one place, does provoke questions about what makes Radio France specifically French, or specific at all. If you live in a country with a prominent national broadcaster, then most of the scenarios depicted in the film will be familiar, either through documentaries, news stories, or general knowledge. For example, when one lives in Britain, the BBC becomes a member of the family. It is there when we’re born, in some way or another it will mediate our experience of every significant political and cultural event we live through, and it’ll likely still be there when we die. We follow the institution through its trials and scandals and triumphs. Most of us know someone who works for the BBC in some capacity. We know how it functions. This a common experience.
Therefore, there is nothing surprising in La Maison de la Radio. It does not convey how Radio France is different from other national broadcasters or, to be very critical and return to the notion of The Office, how it is different from other large organisations of any kind.
The inward gaze of the documentary becomes frustrating. We see so much of the internal machinations of this public institution that we begin to crave wider, outside context. What does France think of Radio France? What part does it play in the culture of the nation? While a French audience may themselves already know the answers, les étrangers can only speculate. Typically the only hint we get is from within Radio France itself. In a news editorial meeting there is an ennui tinged discussion about what to do with Justin Bieber, namely how they should report the phenomenon of the Canuck child’s hysterical fanbase. Someone suggests that they could talk to some kids, but that this wouldn’t be very Radio France. A counter-proposal is made that they could talk to a sociologist instead. This is met with amused agreement. Yes, in fact, make it a left-wing sociologist. That would be very Radio France.
The joke intimates something about the public perception of the organization. This is intriguing, but unfortunately the film is not interested in contextualizing its subject any further than this. As such, for Radio France’s listenership La Maison de la Radio will function as an affectionate song to a friend, but for everyone else it will likely be an inessential document of an organization which somehow remains faceless even at the end of a camera lens.