Avant de Partir
review by KJ Doughton, 8 March 2002
Before Leaving (Avant de Partir),
the French documentary directed by Marie de Laubier, is sardine
can-packed with more human drama than an afternoon’s worth of
television soap operas, talk shows, and classic Hollywood movies. A
mother bickers with her daughter concerning family decisions,
Terms-of-Endearment style. Some friends enjoy romantic views of
the Eiffel Tower from aboard a river-prowling ferryboat. A crooning
man serenades an older woman with heartfelt ballads, in the
sentimental spirit of Moonstruck. People die. Companions
gather together to don protective eyewear and view a lunar eclipse.
A gaggle of ladies relax and enjoy the pampering of a beauty salon
attendant as their hair is washed and styled. There are raucous,
festive birthday parties that rival Titanic’s foot-stomping
steerage shindigs, with a dozen voices belting out traditional
French tunes and twice as many hands clapping along.
With so much on hand to entertain
the viewer, why is it that de Laubier’s film struggles to find
distribution? Could it be that unlike such current
multiplex-haunting youth fodder as The Fast and The Furious,
and Crossroads, Before Leaving is a subtitled foray
into the lives of elderly nursing home patients? The film’s editor,
Paul deLaubier (brother of Marie), honestly admits that Before
Leaving lacks the sexy spin of such big-budget products. He
explains that partially because of its pesky subtitles ("a big
no-no,") and its commercially risky subject matter, U.S. television
broadcasters rejected the pioneering movie.
"Let’s be honest," he concedes. "Do
people want to see old crazy people in a nursing home? PBS doesn’t
think so, although it’s a shame. But I’m not surprised. I think we
are afraid of contemplating our future, and are more comfortable
going by the established clichés about nursing homes as being too
Indeed, Before Leaving’s
setting, a facility in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles referred to as
M.A.P.I. (the acronym denotes a company that manages 150 nursing
homes in France), should be familiar to many Stateside citizens.
Statistics show that nearly 2 million Americans are currently
residing in approximately 16,000 nursing homes around the country.
Meanwhile, gerontology experts claim that nearly thirty percent of
all United States inhabitants will spend some time during their life
in a nursing home, staying on average nineteen months. With these
striking numbers in mind, it’s likely that the very people currently
being entertained by the frat-house-level hi-jinks of American
Pie and Slackers will eventually encounter the
omnipresent culture of long term care.
Perhaps in the sunset of their
lives, such filmgoers will find themselves unable to independently
engage in such daily activities as bathing, feeding, toileting, and
maintaining grooming and hygiene, requiring a nursing home stay for
lengthy rehabilitation. Perhaps they’ll endure the memory-squelching
throes of Alzheimer’s Disease, and reside in a special dementia unit
under constant supervision.
Perhaps they’ll enter the field as
employees, hacking it out on the grunt-level CNA staff to bathe and
feed patients, transferring them from bed to wheelchair using
hydraulic hoyer lifts. Eventually, they might rise up in the ranks
to Administator status and run the place, like Ms. Yamina Abbes, a
friend of the filmmaking team who takes center stage in Before
Leaving. An energetic, sincere brunette, emoting empathy and
understanding with a newly-admitted patient who only wants to know
when lunch begins, she can also be assertive and stern, as when
persuading a would-be boarder that he’s too healthy and independent
to reside at M.A.P.I. Meanwhile, many patients proclaim, "You have
great teeth," expressing their appreciation for her inviting smile.
"It was obvious that Yamina herself
very quickly forgot about the crew," observes Paul, "inasmuch as a
two-woman crew is discreet. But she enjoyed showing her work, and
sometimes went to Marie to inform her that some situation developing
one floor below would be interesting to her. Sometimes she would ask
Marie and Emmanuelle [Colinot, the director’s camerawoman] not to
shoot, mainly out of respect for her diminished residents."
Acting as our esteemed tour guide
down M.A.P.I.’s multi-storied labyrinth of hallways, dining areas,
resident bedrooms, nursing stations, field trip buses, and
administrative offices, Ms. Abbes brings viewers along for a
bustling day of coordinating admissions, counseling family members,
and putting out the emotional fires for her dependent masses. As
Before Leaving begins, a nurse informs us that two
classifications of patient reside there: those with Alzheimer’s, who
can recall older memories, but not current events, and psychotic
patients who have been institutionalized most of their lives for
schizophrenia-like conditions. Watching the film, however, one
notices that each patient transcends such classifications, revealed
as a singular individual with peculiar quirks, eccentricities, and
mannerisms all their own.
Take, for instance, Ms. Abbes’
initial interview with Ms. Colizza, a stubborn matriarch who takes
fierce pride in once managing 400 workers as a Human Resources
Director. Failing memory and trembling, weakened legs have made this
self-proclaimed "boss of everyone" a dangerous liability at home. As
her long-suffering daughter reluctantly admits Colizza, the defiant
mother proclaims, "Thank you for a dreadful day. You’re trying to
get rid of me!" Scoffing at the notion of being confined to M.A.P.I.,
she crosses arms across her chest and spews sarcasm like The Lion
King’s conniving villain, Scar.
After a few minutes with Ms. Abbes,
whom she admires as a fellow leader, Colizza mellows out, reassuring
the administrator that "I think we’ll get along just fine." When Ms.
Abbes asks why, the new resident’s response is a telling commentary
on what this intensely independent woman values in life, even when
mind and body are compromising such self-reliance. "We both have the
same authority," Colizza explains with a mischievous,
A few moments pass, and the
incredibly busy nursing home coordinator is overseeing the
orientation of another new client, Mireille. After remarking on her
colorful head of hair, Ms. Abbes is scolded. "You called me a
red-head," screeches Mirielle, who recently escaped from a
psychiatric ward with her boyfriend and was refused re-admittance
there. "Don’t call me that."
Ms. Abbes works her magic,
introducing the perpetually grinning, toothless woman to the
facility’s food services coordinator after being told by a caregiver
that Mirielle’s favorite part of the day is "lunchtime." "You’re
nice," says Mirielle, warming to the considerate administrator. "I
love you with all my heart."
"A central theme with Yamina,"
explains Paul, "is to give her residents the same respect and
attention you would to your own friends. Never to infantilize them.
She says herself that she, as a person, learns more from her
residents that anyone else. She also makes it a point of knowing
them on a personal basis. After all,’ she says, ‘we practically live
together. More than that, I work where they live.’"
"It’s clear to me," he continues,
"that the attention she gives them, along with the trust they
develop in her, are the keys to running a successful home, where
success is measured not in French Francs or Euros, but in harmony
Even so, Before Leaving
makes it clear that M.A.P.I.’s success is a team effort, dependent
on the strengths of other gifted professionals, such as the nursing
team that must alert family members to a loved one’s death. Entering
the room of a long-time resident and finding her stiff and lifeless
in bed, they dress the body in a favored wardrobe and brush her
hair. It’s clear that the deceased women’s care team, so
instrumental in serving her during these senior years, know best how
she would have wanted to appear at this final stage. As viewers, we
consider such final post-life rituals with new understanding.
Someone has concluded her arc of life, and as a C.N.A. slowly shuts
the room’s window shade and the scene fades into darkness, the
finality is devastating.
In extreme contrast to such
emotionally gripping moments, Before Leaving devotes most of
its time to the hustling, bustling, carpe diem vibe that
inhabits this vibrant elderly community. Rather than come across
with the grim, somber feel of a funeral dirge – the common
assumption made by outsiders concerning what skilled nursing
facilities are like – the M.A.P.I. is more akin to a colony of
scurrying, scampering bees. Center-stage is their queen, the
ever-present Ms. Abbes, who is referred to by one grateful
home-dweller as "Mrs. Master of the Poor."
Another staff member providing a
light, life-affirming mood is Tom, who dutifully takes M.A.P.I.’s
residents out on shopping trips while he isn’t serenading guests of
honor at lavish, upbeat birthday parties in the facility’s lively
dining room. "Are you the Coco of my heart?" he asks a celebrated
centurion. "Let’s leave here on a horse. Let’s go crazy!" With a
flirty, dismissive chuckle, Coco shoos off the would-be suitor,
turns to another resident, and giggles, "I don’t believe a word of
it. It passes the time, I guess."
During such high-spirited moments,
there’s a sense of positive regard and tactile affection that
appears innocent and fresh. A silver-haired gent named Mr. Simon
emerges to kiss his beloved Suzanne. A C.N.A. is seen caressing a
woman’s hair, or greeting an emerging partygoer with an affectionate
peck on the cheek. Maybe it’s a French characteristic,
representative of that country’s less inhibited vibe. In this age of
"hands-off", politically-correct coldness in U.S. health care
policy, such signs of genuine mutual love make one lament how much
we’ve lost in an effort to escape the liability of having such
natural contact misconstrued.
Another feel-good highlight of
Before Leaving occurs in the film’s opening scenes, as residents
behold a lunar eclipse with special glasses. The scene brings to
mind an audience of rabid midnight movie fans fitted with 3-D
glasses to watch some hokey "B" movie, and was the catalyst for the
film’s ever being made. "Marie came up with the idea after I pushed
her to go somewhere to enjoy the total eclipse of the sun in August,
1999," he explains. "Why not to the M.A.P.I., where Ms. Abbes was a
common friend. Marie went, shot a little bit, and decided that there
maybe was a film to be made."
Paul estimates that the final
production cost around $60,000 dollars, provided by several grants
and company sponsorships. However, Before Leaving has yet to
find broadcasters either in France, or abroad, despite the editor’s
success in translating and subtitling it into English to reach a
wider audience. It has found success during festival screenings,
winning the Jury Awards at North Carolina’s Doubletake Documentary
Film Festival and the Newport Film Festival. The movie’s optimistic
take on a seldom-explored subject leaves viewers at such events
moved and revitalized.
"In festivals, where people come to
see something different, we get great reactions," confirms Paul.
"The film touches people because many of them have dealt with the
issue. They would come up to Marie and I and thank us for the film.
In many cases, it helped them. What better compliment, for a
Before Leaving’s impassioned
editor sums up the movie’s unique appeal by citing its
cliché-bashing imagery. "It think it is, paradoxically, almost a
feel-good movie, in a sense. We are reminded that life can be fun,
no matter the age or state of mind."