"Her Name is Sabine": Sandrine Bonnaire: Sister Courage By Jean Roy

in 60th Cannes Film Festival

by Jean Roy

As the wind lifted her skirt and showed her shapely body during the closing credits of A nos amours (by Maurice Pialat), we instantly fell in love with the luminous and radiant beauty of Sandrine Bonnaire. But in her first film as a director, it is not Sandrine herself that we see on the screen, but her sister Sabine – the similarity of first names is very disconcerting. Then comes the explanation: “She is 38. As a child, she was different and needed special care. At that time, autism and diagnosis were not an issue. At 28, she was institutionalized. She was to remain there for 5 years. When she came out, her capacities were diminished.”

Cinema is the art of filming what life does. Filming Sabine, who is not acting, is Sandrine Bonnaire’s ambitious challenge and she has been working on it for 25 years. Young Sabine understands simple things, speaks likewise, is clumsy in the way she uses her body. First, when she still went to school with her siblings, she was nicknamed crazy Sabine. Then, she was put in a school for ‘abnormal’ children. Another failure. She had to leave this school and stayed at home until she was 27. The exemplary support offered by her family enabled her to study and knit in her bedroom. She was very creative, had started to play the piano and was soon able to play Schubert and Bach. She needs affection: “It’s absolutely sure you come and see me tomorrow morning?” she keeps on asking her sister in a way which says it all.

Later on, in 1996, after her elder brother dies, she moves to a different town with her mother, and she goes through an emotional crisis. She starts to spit, becomes nasty, tears up photos of her relatives, spends time in a psychiatric hospital, but no diagnosis is made. Her family tries to find an institution but nothing is available. Sandrine rents a flat for her opposite where she lives, with two nurses who can’t cope and give up. Back to the psychiatric hospital for another five years. She bangs her head against the walls; she foams at the mouth, loses her memory, can’t wash herself anymore and puts on 30 kilos. In 2001, she is finally diagnosed as a psycho infantile with autistic behavior. Since then, she has found a new lease of life in a special center in the Charente region, where she has to relearn what she once knew.

Let’s say it out loud; Her Name is Sabine (Elle s’appelle Sabine) is the most beautiful film that Cannes has given us this year. First of all, because it is the most true to life in human terms. Next because its focus on the individual never reduces its collective aspect, from the level of the family, spreading out to the level of society. Finally, because it’s cinema at its purest. Let’s just give the example of a link shot. When she is still young and pretty, Sabine is taken by her sister to New York on Concorde. And there is a sudden jump in time from Sabine sitting in this plane for millionaires to Sabine sitting in a nondescript car in the French countryside. Could there be a more cinematic way of expressing loss?