Les Bureaux de Dieu

Re-creating Reality

December 2, 2008By Paris UpdateFilm

All French filmmakers seem to be climbing onto the documentary bandwagon at the moment. My recent Paris Update reviews have certainly been dominated by both real documentaries (J’Irai Dormir à Hollywood and La Vie Moderne) and documentary-style movies (Entre les Murs).Claire Denis’s Les Bureaux de Dieu, which falls into the latter category, is inspired by the observation of daily dealings in real French family planning clinics over a period of seven years – about as long as this movie seemed to last (in spite of its many good points).

The film follows a succession of women and girls consulting family-planning advisers in a single set of offices located in a typical Parisian apartment block. The only external shots show workers or patients smoking a quick cigarette on a balcony.

Many of the women’s stories are engaging: girls having to hide the fact that they are taking the pill from their mothers; women who have decided to have an abortion but who reveal that they would really like to keep their babies; schoolgirls sniggering as they are told about various contraception methods; and even a Bulgarian prostitute who is pregnant after sleeping with a man she genuinely cares about and who realizes that her child (if she chose to have it) would be younger than her grandchildren.

Because the rapid turnover of patients is the very nature of such clinics, however, we never see any of the women again and are unable to build up sustained empathy with them. Also, although we are given occasional insights into the lives of the workers (one is soon to become a grandmother, another is rehearsing for a role in Racine’s Andromaque), they, too, remain undeveloped as characters.

Since this is a quasi-documentary, perhaps we should not view the people in the film as “characters” as such, but the director’s decision to give the roles of the workers to well-known actresses, including Nathalie Baye, Anne Alvaro, Isabelle Carré and Béatrice Dalle, immediately raises our expectations. In the excellent Entre les Murs (The Class), all the actors were unknown, which helped us to believe in them as real school pupils and teachers, but in Les Bureaux de Dieu the all-too-familiar faces of these actresses prevent us from accepting the film as a documentary.

Moreover, although one might admire the patience and sensitivity of the clinic counselors, we learn very little from the film, except that – if we are to believe the range of examples shown – women in today’s France don’t know much about contraception.

The one masterful touch in the film is the recurring sound of a solo trumpet being practiced in an adjoining apartment while the most intimate details of women’s lives are being discussed. It gives the movie a wistful and sometimes comic poignancy.


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