French filmmaker Francoise Romand debuted in 1986 with a remarkable documentary called Mix-Up ou Meli-Melo. In telling the story of two English families whose lives were tangled by fate when their babies were inadvertently switched at birth, Romand used a number of striking visual and structural techniques to evoke the psychological and class elements of the situation. Her strategies involved engaging the families as performers in telling their own stories.
The following year, Romand made Appelez-moi Madame (Call Me Madame), another remarkable documentary, this time telling the story of Jean-Pierre Voidies, former Resistance member, communist activist and poet, who at 55 underwent a sex change to become Ovida Delect. She continued to live in a small Normandy village with her former wife, now companion, Huguette and their teenaged son Jean-Noel; her new identity was accepted by some, rejected by others.
Again, Romand enlisted the people involved as character-participants in the story being told, even including a visual fantasy Ovida had of running on a beach between sea and sand wearing a flowing wedding dress. In fact, in a supplement on the Appelez-moi Madame DVD, Romand confesses that certain scenes in the film were constructed in a way to deliberately present an image of Ovida which was not strictly true, in order not to make her appear in the more traditionally “male” role in the relationship with Huguette. In one scene, where Ovida prepares glasses to offer the entire film crew a drink, Romand manages to include a sense of awkwardness and unfamiliarity which undermines this “hostess moment”.
What is most distinctive about these early films is Romand's free mixing of documentary and fiction techniques to tell these true stories of unusual people's lives. In fact, she has at times faced criticism for not maintaining some strict “objective detachment” from her subjects, rather than engaging them as complicit participants in the creation of their own stories. But while what she does may not adhere to some puritanical rule of documentary detachment, the results, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has commented, are narratives which “ultimately register with the density of a 500-page novel.”
All of this background may be necessary when approaching Romand's 2004 film, Theme Je (The Camera I), just released on DVD by Microcinema. Beginning in 1999 without a clear idea of where she might be going, Romand started turning the camera on herself, gradually evolving a self-portrait around the time she went to Harvard as a visiting professor of film, later returning to France where she put her beloved Paris apartment up for sale in order to finance an Internet project she was developing.