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New Directors / New Films: "Happiness Academy"

Have you ever seen a film which mixes documentary with fiction? Hybrid films, films with documentary and fiction parts or at least performed / acted elements have been around for some time. I'm not enough of a documentary expert to know if this is an increasing trend but in the past few years I've seen a few. From my (extremely limited) experience the combo can spark frissons of excitement and thoughtful layers as in Sarah Polley's autobiographical mystery Stories We Tell. The hybrid approach can also be both fascinating and exhausting simultaneously as with Clio Barnard's The Arbor (2010) in which actors lipsynched to recorded interviews from the actual documentary subjects.

At this year's New Directors / New Films festival, which wraps today in NYC, the hybrid technique (genre?) gets another discussable entry via Happiness Academy...

We follow two female friends Lily (Laure Calamy) and Dominique (Michèle Gurtner) attending a retreat at the European Happiness Academy in Croatia. They're there to learn from an old guru named Rael, who appears via Skype to attendees in conference rooms. Raelian teachings are actually a thing as is the Happiness Academy which is in North America, too (though I was personally unfamiliar prior to this film). Rael claims that his teachings were given to him by extraterrestrial beings. Who cares if that's true or not if they're peaceful and make people happy, right? 

As far as I can tell the Raelian Church is a self-help cult with a focus on peace, acceptance, meditation, and what comes across as a free love bent. In one early scene at the retreat we learn that members are encouraged to wear colored bracelets which correlate with their desires (gay, straight, taken - not looking, polyamorous, bisexual, companionship but not sex, etcetera). Lily has trouble picking a color but she's clearly there for love while she works through some personal unhappiness. Both Lily & Dominique are surprised that a famous singer Arnaud  is attending and they are immediately on the hunt. As the retreat progress their friendship starts fraying with Arnaud somewhat oblivious to his effect on them. This romantic drama -- or is tragicomedy? -- plays out over and inbetween Raelian celebrations, somewhat interesting classes, and Skype sessions with the guru as well as interstitials with couples attending the event and doing meditation and role play exercizes.

Though combining documentary and fiction is a perfectly reasonable approach to this sort of topic -- in fact, in concept I was totally there for it -- the overall feeling Happiness Academy prompted in me was the desire to shout "just pick one!" to the  directors Alain Della Negre and Kaori Kinashata. But perhaps the length and not the combination was the problem. You'll rarely hear me call a film too short but at only 65 minutes, the romantic entanglements felt (slightly) undernourished while the information a documentary would normally apart on a subject as rich as a self-help retreat with extraterrestial beliefs and polyamorous tendencies was incomplete at best and incredibly vague at worst.

Grade: B-/C+

P.S. Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, as it turns out, is actually a famous French singer and was playing himself or at least a version thereof in the film. Here is one of his music videos and I share it because Isabelle Huppert kicks the video off in conversation with Arnaud...

and here's one of his hits " Je vais au cinéma" (I go to the movies) which is even mentioned in this movie if I recall correctly...

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Reader Comments (4)

Safe informed my feelings about retreats attempting to make you feel better. I'm sure locking yourself inside a solid mental egg away from the toxic chemicals of the world would make anyone of us feel safe. But, I'm a claustrophobic.

March 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

One of my favorite documentary/fiction hybrids is S&Man. It's a horror documentary about low budget extreme horror films. I know quite a few people who appeared in the film who are actual filmmakers, performers, etc. in these projects. And then there were a few people I didn't know. And then they started showing clips of the films in odd contexts and followed different directors through their casting and production processes. It's a trip and very well done. The film has a very clean thesis that is intentionally muddied as they reveal what parts of the film were total fiction towards the end.

This is something that happens a lot more frequently in genre-tinged documentary. Room 237 essentially reedits Kubrick's films into a new psychological horror film about obsession and conspiracy. That director's follow up The Nightmare is almost entirely reenactments of people's experiences with sleep paralysis, intentionally reusing sets, costume, and monster design to connect disparate stories into a singular vision of the phenomenon. And then there's What the Bleep Do We Know!? hiring Marlee Matlin to act out a bizarre exploration of quantum physics and mysticism.

March 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I'm going to assume Robert G is in fact Robert Greene since Green's KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE is one of the best of this sort of film.

March 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Not sure if it *quite* counts but Adaptation goes highly meta on the truth/fiction spectrum.

March 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

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