Review: ‘12 Days’ and the Rights of the Mentally Ill

Posted March 15, 2018 5:41 p.m. EDT

An uneasy calm suffuses “12 Days,” a documentary set at the juncture of personal liberty and the law. An opening title card offers some context: Since 2013, patients in France who have been involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals must be “presented to a freedom and detention judge” within 12 days and then, if needed, every six months. That’s pretty much all the background that the director Raymond Depardon provides in this movie, which suggests that the line between mental illness and health is sometimes determined by who tells your story and how. For those who have long been silenced — and often remain so — being able to tell those stories is clearly monumental.

The documentary largely consists of patient-judge interviews, which take place in small, nearly identical-looking institutional rooms. The spaces are sterile and anonymous, and the exchanges insistently informal; no one wears a suit and tie or announces the judges. The patients are accompanied by an advocate or two who speak on their behalf, at times sharing medical reports. Occasionally, other men and women quietly sit behind the patients; perhaps, you intuit, these are nurses or orderlies. The judges — polite, direct yet reserved — ask and at times answer questions.

The interviews look deceptively placid. Using a fixed camera and a mix of medium shots and head-and-shoulder close-ups, Depardon maintains a distance from everyone in the interview rooms, a vantage that could be characterized as respectful or maybe disinterested. Although he effectively announces his presence in the opening — the camera snakes through a long, severely impersonal hall, like someone searching for an entrance or an exit — Depardon seems to disappear during the interviews. Instead, as he cuts between the patients and the judges, the larger documentary seems to fade away, leaving face-to-face interactions that are by turns eerie, touching and tragic.

The patients seem either accepting of their situation or resistant. Some speak clearly and with equanimity, making their case for freedom; one nearly vibrates with anger; one weeps; another expresses her wish to die. One man sounds heavily drugged, and soon his tale suggests why he might be. Each patient’s story has its rhythm and logic (or lack thereof), its pathos and complexity. The judges listen attentively and sometimes seem to know the answers to their questions, deliberating almost too quickly. Some things remain unanswered, and Depardon, a veteran photojournalist and documentarian whose films include “Fait Divers,” doesn’t try to fill in the blanks.

Every so often, Depardon folds in exterior images of men and women milling around outside the building. In one such sequence, an older man paces inside a small patch of gated lawn, a curtain of mist wavering in the background. It’s a wintry, melancholic scene made somewhat sadder by the tinkling of some dolorous piano music. (Alexandre Desplat composed the minimalist score.) As this lonely man paces back and forth, it would be easy to see him as merely an inmate. What Depardon would like you to see, I think, in this lucid, focused and adamant documentary is something more profound: a man who, whatever the threat he might pose to himself or to others, deserves basic human rights.


Additional Information:

’12 Days’

Not rated. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.