Her Name Is Sabine

By David Balfour

her-name-is-sabine-sandrine-bonnaire.jpg Her Name Is Sabine, 2007

Sandrine Bonnaire, the striking actress who has worked with directors from Agnès Varda to Patrice Leconte, has created a film that is pained, personal and poignant. It is a documentary about her seemingly-autistic sister, Sabine of the title.

It is moving tale told in an unsentimental manner. A documentary that is both distant and incredibly personal. Bonnaire sets out to show us her sister’s life. The film gently shifts between three cinematic forms – vérité style observation of Sabine today, home videos of Sabine over the past 25 years that are presented in a lyrical even dream like manner and few spare interviews with doctors and others that have knowledge of or can relate to Sabine’s condition. The result is a poetic piece that works slowly to combine all the elements. The result is a rich and multifaceted experience.

Watching the film is to see two Sabine’s. At first it is almost impossible to connect the two versions presented. The Sabine we see today is unable to concentrate, has wild mood shifts, is conversant on only the most basic level, and can’t cope for herself on a practical day to day basis. She constantly asks Sandrine to whether sure that she will come tomorrow. She needs reassurance. She can’t quit imagine tomorrow – terrified of being abandoned by being abandoned.

her-name-is-sabine-sandrine-bonnaire-2.jpgHer Name Is Sabine, 2007 

In contrast to this, the Sabine seen in the home videos is unstable and almost wilfully childlike, but she is also beautiful, engaged, and independent. More than that, she is shown to be articulate, vivacious, engaged woman. She holds conversation acts in rational if sometime child like way to the world. As a child her symptoms were mild, but growing older then became more pronounced. When she couldn’t go to school anymore, she stayed at home read avidly and taught herself how to play piano – even composing a few pieces. She was loved by her family and often went on holiday – her favourite place was America. Much of the home videos show her enjoying the trips with her sister.

Sabine’s condition was never diagnosed – and this lack of diagnosis prevented the family from getting the right treatment for her. When she 27, her she could not longer be cared for by her mother, and there was no residential homes that would take her. So, she was institutionalised for five years. The affect was devastating. The drugs they gave her and the condition in which she was treated caused her to become a shell of the person she was.

This film powerfully demonstrates the terrible blight that mental institutes leave on the people who go into them. Sabine was troubled, but she was crushed by the system, by the drugs, by the neglect, by the dehumanising nature of the place. What is remarkable is this point is made without the stepping foot inside a mental hospital - that is the revelation of filmmaking. This film is call for greater compassion.

sandrine-bonnaire.jpgSandrine Bonnaire 

Only upon leaving the hospital was she properly diagnosed – Now off the drugs her personality is returning. But she will never be that person again. There is a sense of loss. It is a DVD of her trip to America that provides one the most poignant moments of the film and connects the two Sabine’s – so much so that they can talk to each other. Sabine watches the screen and her eyes well up. She howls as if wounded beyond repair. But yet her eyes do not move from the TV. She is transfixed. She is face to face with the past, confronted by the visible signs of her decline. Which we have learned didn’t have to be. Yet she declares her tears are shed out of joy; she loves seeing herself in America, loves seeing herself happy. It’s a powerful scene no doubt, but it made me uncomfortable.

Why was Sandrine confronting her sister like this? To what end and to what extent can Sabine properly consent to this. What is most compelling is the unspoken guilt that lies within Sandrine. Her camera work is almost cold in its showing Sabine and the people she lives with – as if Sandrine has become distant from Sabine. Sabine constantly interrupts Sandrine’s' film in her quest for reassurance that she will be return tomorrow. And yet the act of making the film shows great compassion and commitment. Almost and act of atonement for allowing her to suffer in the mental institute. Somewhere inside Sandrine is a feeling of guilt, but it doesn’t paralyse her. She and her sister get on with the process of living.

David Balfour is a writer and producer based in London.