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Beyond a few notable exceptions — particularly Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1960 masterpiece, The Truth — courtroom dramas have never been a major staple of French cinema. This is probably because the French court system is not exactly as dramatically inclined as the American one: There are far fewer trials by jury, fewer witnesses taking the stand or criminals breaking down under heavy cross-examination. Most actual courtroom scenes in France involve a judge asking lots of questions to both sides, weighing all of the evidence and then allowing lawyers to deliver a final closing argument, which more often than not is the most exciting part of the process.
Yet first-time director Antoine Raimbault has somehow crafted a nail-biter of a courthouse thriller with Conviction (Une intime conviction), whose story is based on the murder trial of Jacques Viguier, played here by the always creepy Laurent Lucas (Lemming). Viguier— a father of three and distinguished law professor in Toulose — was arrested in 2000 for killing his wife, Suzanne, after she disappeared from their house on a Sunday morning, although her body was never recovered and there was no tangible evidence to ever convict him. Acquitted at his first trial nearly 10 years after the fact, Viguier was retried a year later in the cour d’assises, which involves a six- or nine-member jury randomly chosen to weigh in along with three appointed magistrates.
The assises trial is the setting for Raimbault’s movie, which uses many of the real-life protagonists from the Viguier case but invents one key fictional character: Nora (Marina Fois), a single mom and short-order cook who employs Jacques Viguier’s eldest daughter, Clemence (Armande Boulanger), as a tutor for her son. We soon learn that Nora has been obsessed for years with defending Viguier’s innocence, eventually badgering and convincing a famous trial lawyer, Dupond-Moretti (Olivier Gourmet), to take on the case, then basically throwing her life away in order to provide pro bono legal assistance throughout the long and intense hearing.
Outside a late revelation of some importance, Nora’s behavior is never really justified — per the press notes, the character was inspired by Viguier’s actual girlfriend, who, like his wife, was a former student of his — which makes it hard to accept how she’s willing to loses her job, dump her boyfriend, leave her son alone while the house is on fire and nearly get killed in a car accident, all to save a man she never has any contact with. Not unlike ordinary citizens who turn into obsessed online sleuths, convinced they will discover the answer to a long-unsolved mystery, Nora’s actions come across as borderline sociopathic throughout the movie.
But that doesn’t make her fight any less compelling, especially once you realize what she’s up against. Although there’s no proof and no eyewitnesses, Viguier was quickly fingered by both the police and his wife’s lover (Philippe Uchan) as the culprit. (This is France, so adultery is naturally involved.) The latter staged a long public and private smear campaign against Viguier, making dozens of phone calls to try to sway opinion against his mistress’ husband. We know all of this thanks to hundreds of hours of recorded telephone conversations that Dupond-Moretti hands over to Nora, hoping she will uncover evidence that will serve his client. And she finds plenty of it.
As the court date nears, Raimbault and editor Jean-Baptiste Beaudoin (Scribe) do a terrific job pacing the action and parceling out important pieces of information, many of which emerge from the phone calls that Nora listens to at night. By the time the trial begins, we’ve been sucked so far into the facts of the case that we’re left hanging onto the edge of our seats until a verdict is finally reached.
The suspense is two-fold: On one hand, the intense and incredibly taciturn Viguier looks like he could indeed be guilty, and the fact that he’s apparently a fan of Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t help matters, according to the judge. (Again, only in France.) But the main source of tension involves the various mishaps of the judges and criminal investigators, who allowed a case with no evidence to go to trial and to be appealed, and who now seem hell-bent on convicting Viguier despite the fact that there’s still no real proof.
This is something Dupond-Moretti brings up several times during the hearing, and in a gripping performance that culminates in a show-stopping closing argument, Gourmet turns the eloquently verbose defense lawyer into the film’s most pivotal character, offering up a passionate indictment of the French legal system. Fois, a comic actress who has taken on a handful of ambitious roles over the past years (notably in Polisse, Irreprochable and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop), is also excellent as the obsessive Nora, even if her raison d’etre remains foggy till the end.
While Conviction doesn’t dish out as many twists as one hopes (the Hitchcock fan in this critic was secretly wishing Viguier would be more of a criminal mastermind instead of a seemingly innocent victim of injustice), it does deliver a captivating portrayal of how French murder trials work — especially the fact that it takes an “intimate conviction” (per the film’s original title) on the part of the jury to condemn the accused, rather than confirming guilt is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
It’s perhaps this major judicial difference that also makes French trials appear less cinematic than American ones, which is why Raimbault deserves so much credit for turning his feature debut into a first-rate drama that both sticks to the facts and makes them thrilling to watch.
Production companies: Delante Productions, Delante Cinema
Cast: Olivier Gourmet, Marina Fois, Laurent Lucas, Jean Benguigui
Director: Antoine Raimbault
Screenwriters: Antione Raimbault, Isabelle Lazard, based on Antoine Raimbault, Karim Dridi
Producer: Caroline Adrian
Director of photography: Pierre Cottereau
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Jean-Baptiste Beaudoin
Composer: Gregoire Adrian
Casting director: Richard Rousseau
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