• On the Adamant is a compassionate documentary following the clients and caregivers at a mental health centre within a unique floating structure on the river Seine

  • Psychotherapist Camilla Nicholls reviews

On the Adamant, directed by veteran documentarist Nicolas Philibert in collaboration with clinical psychiatrist and psychologist Linda de Zitter, is an extraordinarily affecting documentary about a Parisian floating day-care centre for people with mental disorders. It won this year’s Golden Bear Award for best film at Berlin Film Festival,

The Adamant, an architecturally stunning barge-like structure, is permanently moored on the Seine. Each morning its louvred shutters are opened outwards as if metaphorically reaching out to its daily visitors who are not identified in the film by their clearly complex medical conditions but most often introduced by their creative talent.

The shutters let appropriately gentle light in reflecting the approach of all those working on board who provide a safe and respectful haven for film discussion, musical, art and movement workshops. Visitors are encouraged to play a part in the running of the Adamant, whether by helping to count the petty cash, collect spurned fruit from the local market to make jam, to work behind ‘the bar’. It’s an enabling space captured invisibly and without commentary by the filmmakers who illicit many thoughtful insights from the patients such as “You have actors in here who don’t know they’re actors. It’s not medical. They’re actors without realising.” This is a french film so the poetry of many scenes is wonderfully unashamed.

There are many alternative realities alive in the patients aboard The Adamant but the talents are unquestionably real. The film opens with an electrifying, yet acoustic, performance of french rock band Téléphone’s ‘Human Bomb’ by François who passionately conveys the possibility of being a hair’s breadth from acting out its self-destructive lyrics. François later confides he told his father “I am the only failure in your life". There is no self-pity as he says it, just very long drags on his roll up.

One art workshop ends with the artists presenting their work and explaining its meaning as they see it. There is an artwork entitled “The conk that should never have been drawn”. Also a naïf felt pen drawing of a praying mantis in a bow tie convincingly described, by the equally seductive Muriel, as about life, love and death.

The Adamant’s aim is to provide compassionate, culture-centred care and On the Adamant presents a persuasive picture of that working with its visitors quite literally choosing to be on board. If there has been conflict or dissent aboard the therapeutic vessel in its thirteen years of existence this film only brings us a glimpse in the form of a frustrated patient who feels unheard in her desire to run a workshop, not just be in one.

The film makes a compelling argument for the importance of a benign physical environment in mental health care as well as a belief in the transformative power of culture. On The Adamant rewards viewing in myriad ways, but in a world which currently feels so often bereft of humanity it is a film worth seeing if only for its tender joie de vivre.

On the Adamant is streaming on Curzon Cinema and Mubi.

Camilla Nicholls is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in North London and online

Further reading

In defence of art therapy

How writing fiction freed me from a deep depression

Cathy Rentzenbrink's top tips for a regular writing practice

How psychotherapy and psychedelics can work together

What does creativity look like in the brain?