In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention at the outset that Françoise Romand has been a good friend for over two decades. But I hasten to add that she became a friend because of my immoderate enthusiasm for Mix-Up (1986), her first film–one of the strangest as well as strongest documentaries that I know.
Filmed over just twelve days, but recounting a multilayered real-life story that covers nearly half a century, Mix-Up recounts and explores what ensued after two middle-class English women, Margaret Wheeler and Blanche Rylatt, gave birth to daughters in November 1936 in a Nottingham nursing home, and the babies were inadvertently switched. The switch came about through a filing error that was only confirmed 21 years later, after Wheeler persisted in pursuing her own queasy suspicions, meanwhile keeping contact with the Rylatts. But by then, of course, Peggy and Valerie had grown up with the wrong mothers, Blanche and Margaret respectively.
Reseeing Mix-Up recently, and finding it has only expanded and improved over time, I continue to wonder why it isn’t more widely known. Romand’s films, described in her self-interview, are all quite different from one another (and her autobiographical Thème Je, which she calls The Camera I in English, is even more radical and transgressive than Mix-Up), and this gives her a somewhat elusive profile as an auteur.
But perhaps the most serious obstacle is that her masterpiece poses a genuine challenge in how it makes art and life indistinguishable, merging artistic choices with ethical initiatives, and dares us to do likewise in following her. The implicit rivalry between the two mothers and their respective cultures and approaches to life is everywhere apparent, but part of Romand’s genius is the way she gets the entire family engaged in the serious game-playing of this film’s production, a game we become obliged to play as well. This makes her art both an unpredictable, risky adventure and an unusual form of healing, for the people on-screen as well as for us. The film’s hopeful closing motto, “We all belong together,” may sound a trifle optimistic, but the film itself is nothing less than a multifaceted demonstration of this thesis.
Because various stages in this long narrative are made to coexist in the present, the plot and characters ultimately register with the density of a 500-page novel. And the subject is treated so exhaustively that the film’s 63 minutes register like a much longer film.
But at no point does Romand pretend to offer an objective, “balanced” account of what happened (even though her recurring imagery, some of it surrealist and/or allegorical, includes babies being weighed on matching scales), and the viewer is obliged to become no less invested.