38 Witnesses: Film Review

Moral issues the focus in classy who-failed-to-stop-it murder tale.

Guilty consciences plague the witnesses of this gripping murder tale based on true events.

Night. The hallway entrance to a block of flat. A young woman's body lies in pool of blood. Whodunit -- the who, why and how of the killing -- is the least of Lucas Belvaux's concerns in the morality tale that develops as it emerges that the woman's dying screams were heard by 38 neighbours who did precisely nothing to help. Taut, dense, demanding but immensely rewarding, the movie will win kudos from critics and should draw discriminating audiences attracted by its adroit handling of social and moral issues. This is arthouse filmmaking that deserves the widest possible viewing.

The story is derived from the story of Kitty Genovese, the young New York waitress who in 1964 was brutally murdered while 38 witnesses heard and saw what was happening but stood by and did nothing. Basing his version on a lightly novelised account of the case by Didier Decoin, Belvaux sets the action in the northern port of Le Havre, amid the giant container ships and monstrous landing equipment that dwarf the city's inhabitants. His focus is on Pierre (Yvan Attal), a merchant navy captain who is part of the conspiracy of silence in which the witnesses allegedly and without exception heard nothing and saw nothing on the night of the killing.

The initial point of view is that of Louise (Sophie Quinton), Pierre's fiancee who was away travelling on the night in question, and of the journalist Sylvie (Nicole Garcia) who is curious about the case. Eaten up by guilt and remorse, Pierre finally goes to the police with the truth, but the examining magistrate informs him that he will neither charge the witnesses for failing to prevent a murder (possible under French law) nor reveal this development to the media on the grounds that to do so would be pointless and destructive. A sympathetic investigator, Léonard (Francois Feroleto), leaks the story to the journalist who in turn is faced with the dilemma of whether to publish or be damned. When she publishes, the spotlight falls again on Pierre who is attacked by the other 37 witnesses for breaking ranks. And of course his relationship with Louise is strained to breaking point.

Belvaux is at pains to distance the spectator with a stylised approach and a measured build-up, but the pay-off when it comes is well worth the wait. Despite an occasional staginess due to the frequent enclosed or night-time settings, the dialogue is crisp and acutely relevant to the issues of individual responsibility and how we are to judge our fellow citizens for their failings.

The acting and the film's technical qualities are unformly excellent, with a special mention for the sound design by Henri Morelle.

Opens: March 14
Production company: Agat Films, Artemis Productions et Cie
Cast: Yvan Attal, Sophie Quinton, Nicole Garcia, Francois Feroleto, Natasha Regnier, Patrick Descamps, Didier Sandre
Director: Lucas Belvaux
Writer: Lucas Belvaux, based on the novel "Est-ce ainsi que les femmes meurent?" by Didier Decoin
Producer: Patrick Sobelman, Patrick Quinet, Yvan Attal
Production design: Frederique Belvaux
Photography: Pierric Gantelmi D'Ille
Sound: Henri Morelle
Editor: Ludo Troch
Music: Arne Van Dongen
Sales: Films Distribution
No MPAA rating
Running time: 104 minutes

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