Highlights of the New York Film Festival


Jean-Gabriel Périot’s film Returning to Reims, about a prodigal son’s homecoming, is an unusual kind of documentary: it’s an adaptation of a nonfiction book of the same title, from 2009, by the sociologist Didier Eribon, who had left his family’s home in that northeastern French city, moved to Paris, and didn’t visit for decades, until after the death of his father. Périot is a specialist in films of historical montage, but in “Returning to Reims” his assemblage of archival clips—from fiction films, documentaries, and TV news—seems organized around the solid specificity of Eribon’s reminiscences (read in voice-over by the actress Adèle Haenel, one of the stars of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), providing them flesh and blood.

Eribon came from a poor, working-class family, and he narrates its arc with ardent research that reaches back to the early life of his maternal grandmother. The excerpts from Eribon’s text recount the severe difficulties of her youth in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and the cavalier methods by which she grasped at bits of comfort (including a relationship with a German officer during the Second World War). Eribon goes on to describe the constraints of his mother’s life (despite her intelligence, she had no opportunity for higher education), the family’s struggles to achieve a modicum of security, the social solidarity offered by the Communist Party, the promise of government-subsidized housing, the rise of overt racism toward families who migrated from North Africa, and the corresponding rise, among former Communist voters (including Eribon’s mother), of the far right. The voice-over, both historical and intimate, works alchemically upon Périot’s shrewdly selected footage. Snippets of fiction films (including “Zero for Conduct” and Jean-Daniel Pollet’s great short film “Pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse”) gain the real-world anchorage of documentaries; clips from TV news and documentaries (such as “Chronicle of a Summer” and “Le Joli Mai”) gain the dramatic dimensions of fiction. The over-all effect is a metacinema that transforms France’s history of movies into an archeological treasure, a secret archive of private life that’s hiding in plain sight.


Richard Brody
The New Yorker
September 30, 2021