A terrific docu from Gallic nonfiction filmmaker Nicolas Philibert, “La Maison de la radio” adds revealing images to sounds that will be familiar to millions of French public-radio listeners. Presented as a commentary-free look behind the scenes at one of Europe’s great cultural institutions, the film was edited by Philibert himself, who puts all collaborators of the different channels, departments and programs on equal footing by simply showing them at work. Occasionally humorous as well as continually insightful, this local April release could also appeal to doc-friendly distribs elsewhere.
The film is named after architect Henry Bernard’s gigantic circular building, which reportedly has 1,000 offices and is home to the various stations of Radio France, including mainstays France Inter and France Info, featured prominently here. French public radio has an almost religious status in culture-loving, politics-mad and talk-obsessed France, with an annual budget of more than €550 million (roughly $733 million).
The opening montage juxtaposes various radio hosts on the air, building to a cacophony of voices from a wide range of subjects, before focusing on an intimate office conversation between a veteran news journo and a clumsy new recruit. Here, as throughout the film, the people onscreen aren’t identified, which appropriately makes them equals in pursuit of a single goal: Make good, French radio.
Philibert nimbly switches among different genres, including snippets of literary readings and subsequent sound-effect recordings; news programs coming together with last-minute changes; music being performed by a variety of artists in the building’s recording studios; guests (including novelist Umberto Eco, in impeccable French) being interviewed on air; and a quizshow playing out in front of a live audience. And despite the title, the film also leaves the building for a recording session of nature sounds in the woods; interviews in people’s homes; and a live commentary session from a sports reporter strapped to a motorcycle driver during the Tour de France.
While it can be fascinating to see how much work and effort go into making the various radio programs, Philibert punctuates his material with something that’s at least as important in keeping audiences invested: humor. Often very simple situational scenes, such as a sequence of people in various studios, waiting for construction noise to die down before they can continue recording, are edited for maximum comic effect. The talent for finding laughs in everyday situations is what has endeared auds to some of the helmer’s previous films, including his 2002 international hit, “To Be and to Have.”
Two minor problems in the closing reels hold the film back from instant-classic status. It starts to run out of steam about 15 minutes before it ends, and there’s a rare talking-head interview of sorts with a classical-music show producer whose office is stacked to the rafters with compact discs. While there’s nothing wrong with what is said or how it is shot, it feels like an intrusion in what is otherwise a beautiful lineup of simply observed behavior and situations.
Tech credits are solid, including the all-important sound mix from Olivier Do Huu (“Son of Rambow,” Berlinale title “The Nun”). A wide variety of music, much of it performed live, further adds to the pic’s universal appeal.