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.
The true understanding of the concept only becomes clear when you walk across the metal gangway and enter the reception area that spans the length of the ship. Eric Piel, a psychiatrist who came up with the idea for the Adamant and supervised its construction in 2010, insisted that the center have minimal walls (the only doors I opened during my four-hour visit were to a therapist’s room and the restroom). The three-story space has a surprisingly open and airy feel, with sunlight reflecting off the water and streaming through the louvered windows, creating playful patterns on the wooden walls. The loud traffic on the three-lane Quai de la Rapée and the rowdy drunks under the Pont Charles-de-Gaulle seem distant and insignificant. It is a place that brings a sense of calm to the mind.
Being on water can increase one’s appreciation for others. Philibert, a 72-year-old with a kind demeanor and spiky hair, guides me around the area as a tour boat passes by, causing the waves to rock. As I instinctively reach out to hold onto my guide, he explains, “We are in the heart of Paris, but it feels like we are somewhere else. This is a calming and restorative place for everyone, not just patients but also filmmakers.”
The name of the Adamant center, with its bold and old-fashioned connotations, represents the center’s unwavering commitment to resist the current trends. According to Arnaud Vallet, the center’s dedicated head nurse, psychiatry in France has faced budget cuts and sector mergers for over 25 years. Therefore, the center’s goal is to challenge this harmful economic approach.
The 230 individuals, referred to as “passengers” by Philibert, are residents of the first four districts of Paris. They have been recommended by their doctor or therapist and are able to visit the center Monday through Friday between 9:15am and 5pm. Many begin their visit with a cup of strong coffee from a counter made from recycled materials. They then have the opportunity to participate in various workshops such as music, radio, drawing, painting, and stained glass window-making, led by the center’s 25 staff members. Once a week, the passengers come together to cook and on Friday afternoons, there is a film club.
Philibert explains that the purpose of this mission is to provide care for people, but it does not guarantee a cure. The goal is to help the passengers regain the ability to live and function in society, while also preserving their individuality.
This method, which allows individuals with mental illness to engage in daily life through purposeful tasks, known as occupational therapy, is not a new concept. However, the unique aspect of the floating daycentre on the Seine is its focus on promoting creativity. According to Philibert, who runs the center, the passengers’ connections to the world are delicate, and one way to improve them is through engaging activities that prevent boredom and maintain their motivation.
During the time of the Renaissance, individuals who were deemed mentally ill in central Europe were reportedly placed on a “ship of fools” and exiled, forced to embark on endless voyages through the rivers of the Rhineland and Flemish canals. In contrast, the Adamant remains permanently docked in central Paris (where its engine would have been is now a library). As the film concludes, the establishment appears more like an exclusive club for talented outsider artists rather than a place that society chooses to overlook. If you desire to be a part of the crew, you are not alone: author Marie Darrieussecq makes an appearance during my visit to discuss a potential collaboration.
Vallet explains that the boat’s name is a nod to Adam Ant, the British musician who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Many of the regular visitors featured in the film also possess rock star qualities. François, for example, wows viewers with his passionate rendition of Téléphone’s 1979 hit “La Bombe Humaine” in the opening scene. Another regular, Patrice, spends his mornings writing poetry in the cafeteria and finishes his work at home. Catherine, a dancer, can often be seen stretching on the boat’s balcony and becomes frustrated when she is not allowed to lead her own workshop.
They all face difficulties. François, who has a gap-toothed grin, mentions that only medication prevents him from believing he is Jesus. However, we never witness the passengers in their distressed conditions. Instead, Philibert’s interviews suggest that their ability to experience art in unconventional and intense ways may actually be a blessing. Alexis, a young man with a chinstrap beard, lives in a world where associations run rampant and every word evokes an image. He describes, “Very tall thin men remind me of ‘injection’. A bald man reminds me of an orange.” Another passenger is highly sensitive to noise and can only calm the vibrations in his heart by listening to music.
If the Adamant has a protagonist, it is Frédéric Prieur. He sports aviator sunglasses and colorful shirts with pointed collars. As Philibert and I arrive, he greets us at the entrance like the ship’s captain, using a rolled-up magazine as his telescope. Prieur used to be a student at a university in Paris, but was struggling. “I was completely out of sync, lost in space,” he confesses after attending a radio workshop. “I felt like I was going nowhere and I was nobody. I was drowning.” On the ship, he devotes most of his time to immersing himself in cultural experiences, with a detailed and comprehensive focus on the 1970s and 80s. “Movies, science fiction, comics, and pop music have kept me alive,” he reveals. “Otherwise, I’m not sure what I’d be – perhaps a wreck.”
Philibert is most famous for his successful 2002 documentary, Être et Avoir, which follows a single-teacher school. However, he has a longstanding interest in individuals with mental illness and the facilities that care for them. In his 1996 film Every Little Thing, he documented the annual summer play of patients at a psychiatric clinic in the Loire Valley. On the Adamant, however, does not have a similar structure. Instead, it simply observes the unnamed passengers of a ship without tracking their origins or destinations. According to the director, his intention was to be in harmony with the location and allow himself to be guided by whoever he met without a predetermined script or message to convey.
The film’s success among critics is intriguing due to its seemingly unassuming nature. Following its unexpected victory of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, some reviewers theorized that the jury selected this drama-free documentary as a compromise, unable to decide between two more obvious contenders: Christian Petzold’s Afire and Philippe Garrel’s The Plough, both prominent figures in German and French cinema, respectively.
This viewpoint disregards the obvious appeal of the Adamant. While European cinema may be facing an existential crisis and struggling to prove its significance in the midst of numerous streaming platforms, cinema and music still hold great importance to the subjects of Philibert’s film. The key to its success may lie in the fact that the Adamant serves as a sanctuary not only for its regular visitors, but also for those who deeply value art. One of the reasons why François’s performance of La Bombe Humaine is so captivating is because it is unbridled and unfiltered in its artistic expression. As he sings with closed eyes, “the detonator is right there, next to your heart, the human bomb is you”, it strikes a chord. I asked Philibert if the passengers of the Adamant are better and more pure artists than myself. He responded, “It is true that the passengers often express themselves without inhibition. They speak in a direct manner and are not constrained by societal norms. We ‘normopaths’ have lost that ability.”