Before Leaving
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 depressing."

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, "between-you-and-me" smile.

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 and friendship."

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 filmmaker?"

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."

Directed by:
Marie de Laubier

NR - Not Rated.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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