Her Name Is Sabine (Elle s’appelle Sabine)

France (2008) Dir. Sandrine Bonnaire

Fictional films designed to hold a mirror up to society are often hard to watch because what they are depicting is rooted in a reality we refuse to acknowledge. Documentaries can be hard to watch because they ARE showing that reality. Where fictionalised accounts tend to to deal in exaggerations, you can’t fake real life as this film from award winning French actress Sandrine Bonnaire demonstrates.

The titular Sabine is Bonnaire’s younger sister, whose Autism went undiagnosed for many years due to growing up in a period when knowledge and understanding of it was less common in France. Instead her behaviour was considered to be psychiatric and Sabine was institutionalised for five years where the treatment didn’t help Sabine’s condition, reducing her to a drooling, infantile helpless wreck.

Indeed this is quite an accusation to make against the French health care system and their lack of understanding of Autism but unfortunately Bonnaire has the evidence to hand and she shares it for all to see. It’s a deeply personal look at her sister’s unfortunate, and apparently unavoidable, story yet Bonnaire keeps her presentation objective and factual.

Where she could have turned this into a vanity project and made this about herself to get Sabine’s plight noticed, Bonnarie limits her screen presence to narrator with only a very brief appearance when the sisters make up after Sabine plays up and hits Bonnaire. She does admit that she used her fame in conjunction with a specialist doctor to raise funds to build the care home in Charente where this was filmed at but again this is not mentioned purely for the kudos.

But is the evidence compelling enough to condemn the mental facility Sabine was sent to? Interspersed with modern day (2008) footage is home video shot by Bonnaire of her sister, a healthy, slim, happy and active girl, from her late teen years up to a holiday in the US in 1993 aged 23. Compare this to the overweight, depressed lolloping 37 year-old prone to childish and violent outbursts and the cause for concern is overwhelming.

Thanks to the treatment at this new home, Sabine is a little more self sufficient, drooling less and communicating better although she still requires regular medication to stay functional. This medication is a huge reduction to the near permanent sedation she was under in the mental hospital, where Sabine’s behaviour became more volatile to include self harming.

While the tone is never one of anger and blatant finger pointing on Bonnaire’s part it is left to the audience to be enraged on her behalf and be thankful that conditions such as Autism are now widely recognised and treated with considerably more consideration and understanding. The definitive diagnosis Sabine was given one she was released from the institution was “psychoinfantile with Autistic behaviour”.

One of the carers at the home, presumably with a medical background, is asked to explain Autism, describing it as “an annihilation of the self” and an inability to express anxiety within certain boundaries. Being on the Autism Spectrum myself I can certainly relate to some of her ideas whilst not being totally convinced by the distinctly French philosophy behind her reasoning.

It is important to note that the family were also none the wiser and took the doctor’s judgement at face value. Sabine had been to a special school as a child then endured a two week stay in the hospital aged 1996 after her brother died but the family felt this was wrong and Bonnaire arranged for homecare until the nurses couldn’t handle it anymore and Sabine was institutionalised for a second time.

Sabine is not alone in being featured here – 30 year-old Olivier suffers from a cerebral motor infirmity and epilepsy causing him to wear a padded helmet. There is another mentally disabled woman prone to violent outbursts who regularly mugs for the camera during serious moments, which fall into the “I know I shouldn’t laugh but…” category.

What is interesting that despite her dramatic weight gain, loss of some mental faculties and her inherent zest for life, Sabine is still able to play the piano at the same level she could before. Plus she is still a caring soul and doesn’t deliberately cause harm, only in confusion. She has definite plans for marrying a fireman and having kids although, without being cruel, the reality of the situation is that is unlikely.

Possibly the most touching moment comes near the end where Bonnaire shows Sabine the video of their US trip. At first Sabine revels in the change in her appearance then breaks down in tears – tears of joy she tells us. This is the first time since the early home videos we actually see Sabine smile, something she couldn’t even muster when her 38th birthday was celebrated.

While the main question is “Was Sabine’s deterioration avoidable?”, Bonnaire states in her Letter Of Intent that she was hoping to raise awareness of the lack of sufficient specialised help centres in France for Autistic people and that a stint in hospital isn’t always the answer. We can only assume she met her objective in France, while the many awards the film won hopefully got the ball rolling in terms of garnering attention.

Documentaries aren’t as easy to make as people may think, specifically getting the tone right so the audience is on side emotionally with the subject matter. Bonnaire refrains from being didactic or bombarding us with expert contributions to turn this into a dissertation – this is a simple presenting of the raw facts through a heartfelt and uncompromised lens of a unique problem that remains a mystery to many.

Her Name Is Sabine touches the heart without cynically manipulating our emotions, the tragedy of what could have been for Sabine is handled with dignity and restraint when outrage could have been easy. It’s an undeniably heartbreaking and sobering film yet one feels enriched from having viewed it.