The brilliant documentary “Before Leaving” (“Avant de Partir”) plunges viewers into the relatively unexplored territory of long term care. Putting into focus the goings-on at a French nursing facility, director Paul De Laubier finds a bustling, emotional whirlwind that contrasts our notion of nursing homes as depressing dumping grounds for the ill and elderly. Laubier’s camera follows the incredibly demanding routine of Ms. Abbes, an energetic, forty-something brunette who manages the care for dozens of residents, each with their own particular and demanding set of needs.
Cinema has mostly cast a blind eye onto this population in the past. While Michæl Bay and his bottom-line peers grind out pristine, baby food films depicting society as a legion of fresh-faced twentysomethings, “Before Leaving” thrusts us into the challenges of growing old like no film that’s come before. When Ms. Abbes approaches a bedfast woman lying limp and frail in her quiet room, assisting her with a drink of water after the resident confirms, “My left hand doesn’t work,” it’s an unblinking dose of reality. Moments later, we’re introduced to perpetually sad Mrs. Martins, crying and rattled by a loud neighbor’s ranting. “It seems like I’ve lost everything,” she sobs. “And I forget all these days that have passed.”
Perhaps the most fascinating story is that of Mrs. Colizza, a stubborn matriarch admitted by her daughter after her failing memory and legs made her a liability at home. “Thank you for a dreadful day,” she scowls at her guilt-ridden daughter. “You tricked me. How could your dare bring me here? You tried to get rid of me!” Later, when Ms. Abbes attempts to orient the bitter woman, Mrs. Colizza reveals the root cause of her frustration. “I used to be a human resource director,” she boasts proudly. “I was responsible for 400 people. I love being the boss!” Clearly, a submissive life is not her cup of tea.
There are moments of great joy in “Before Leaving,” such as a birthday party where patients belt out traditional French songs in the manner of a spirited choir. The movie reveals the healing power of humor when a kindly male co-worker teases the cynical 89-year old birthday girl Coco. “Are you the Coco of my heart,” he teases, before serenading her like a suave suitor. “Oh, hush,” she grins. “You’re not my boyfriend!” There’s also a beautiful moment during an evening outing, where the patients enjoy a moonlight night of boating, while the Eiffel Tower hovers protectively in the background.
“Before Leaving” reveals that life in these institutionalized settings is, perhaps, not so different from that practiced in the outside world. There are the same politics, mind games, values, and pleasures found throughout life in any locale. Most importantly, there is the struggle to understand that we are responsible for our own happiness. One can leave this existence like Mrs. Colizza, wielding her cane like a ringmaster as she spits vile insults at her son-in-law, or like Ms. Mathiely, a one-time Paris opera singer who “won all the prizes” in her youth. A century later, she can still enjoy the magic of a classical tune sung by a dining room full of clapping, chanting patients singing in not-so-perfect harmony.