At times unbearably intimate, even invasive, Raymond Depardon’s 12 Days is the kind of film you might wonder, as you watch, whether you should be watching. I’m glad I did, and I can’t discount the empathy that this study of mental illness and bureaucratic practice stirs or the understanding it crystallizes. What it illuminates, in its series of vérité encounters between French mental patients and the judges who have the power to release them back into society, is: the slipperiness of diagnoses; the institutional challenge of confronting the brain’s mysteries; and the ways that, over a conversation, mental illness can suddenly reveal itself, even in a person who appears highly functioning.

One young man seems impatient, eager to get back to his life outside the hospital where he’s been sent. But for every four things he says that sound perfectly true, perfectly reasonable, he drops in one that stuns. “You can call Bernie Sanders and he’ll explain the situation,” he suddenly announces. “I’m not lying and I have no disorders in my head.” When he’s told that he will not be discharged, he notes, “My political party’s going to wipe out psychiatrists.”

12 Days studies the hearings that anyone involuntarily institutionalized in a mental hospital in France is entitled to after 12 days of treatment. Depardon’s cameras, unobtrusive, show us the patients usually in a mid close-up, most of them trying to project calmness and certainty. By the end of their interviews, however, many are swallowing back outrage. They have lives to get back to, jobs and kids and cats. Occasionally, Depardon cuts to the judge, who invariably responds with a practiced calm certainty, speaking with the dispassionate voice of the state. “You’re excused, sir,” one woman says, after she has explained an appeals process to an increasingly agitated young man. “Have a nice day,” he snaps back. And, “Thank you for your abuse of power.”

Not all the patients strive to appear untroubled. Some speak harrowing truths. “I constantly hear the electric chair’s voice,” one says. Another, a young woman, reports that she has been raped by multiple men. “I hurt myself to blot out that boy’s energy rather than feel his sexual energy inside me,” she says, of one rapist in particular. The judge nods, sympathetic but unable to return this patient to the world: She’s made some progress in the hospital, and why risk that with an early discharge?

The choices the state faces sometimes seem impossible. Is keeping a young mother institutionalized going to relieve a distress that is only compounded by being kept from her children? The judges’ decisions seem preordained by the patients’ files, by the reports of the doctors — “all scum!” rages one young man who demands an outside opinion. Like many people with some power in a bureaucracy, the judges emphasize their powerlessness, the grinding logic of the system. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” the judges say, again and again, in between questions chosen to tease out whether each patient understands the need for ongoing treatment, even if as an outpatient. Some of the patients have a hard time admitting that they’d still need help on the outside, a reluctance that they don’t seem to realize is damning them to more time in. When a patient who seems fully competent suddenly flashes some anger or exclaims something baldly irrational, the tension of these interviews actually dissipates a little. Now it’s clear what the judge probably should do.

Probably. Should. These choices inevitably are guesses. One interview that seems to go well, with the patient discussing his job search and exhibiting awareness of how treating his schizophrenia will help improve his chances of success in life, concludes with a judge promising to study the patient’s file and get back with an answer in a couple of hours. We never hear the outcome; the film’s revelation is the difficulty of the question.

Throughout I grappled, sick to my stomach, not just with whether these patients should be released but with questions of privacy and consent. Do they all understand the forms that they have signed allowing these worst minutes of their lives to be shown to the world? At one point, convinced I had no moral right to bear witness to the particularly painful interview on the screen, I wandered away for five minutes, something I have never done with a film I am reviewing. And yet I cannot condemn or dismiss this study, one of the most revealing films about mental health — and mental health bureaucracies — ever made.

12 Days screens at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 20, at the Aero Theatre on a double bill with Depardon's France.

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