Like its deceiving title, which is more suitable for a Dutch Renaissance painting than for a courtroom drama, Stéphane Demoustier’s The Girl With a Bracelet (La Fille au bracelet) is very much about how one should never judge a book by its cover — or, more specifically here, judge a murder suspect by her outward emotional bearing.
Indeed, the titular bracelet in question has nothing to do with a band from Cartier or Chanel, referring instead to the electronic ankle monitor worn by 16-year-old Lise, a French teenager charged with killing her best friend. Much of the movie, adapted from the Argentine thriller The Accused, which premiered in Venice last year, focuses on how others perceive Lise during a trial that lasts for most of the running time.
It’s a subtle and psychologically resonant take on your typical nail-biting whodunit, concentrating less on the minute details of the crime — though these are all outlined by the time the case wraps up — than on how Lise’s family, friends and those in the courtroom react to Lise’s own reactions. It’s not really about whether she’s guilty, but whether she’s acting like she’s guilty. And yet, how is a guilty person supposed to act?
Demoustier, whose debut feature, 40-Love, was a well-performed study of a family in crisis, has taken one facet of the original movie and blown it up into a more probing and intimate narrative. There’s no media feeding frenzy or assorted flashbacks to the killing as in Gonzalo Tobal’s film, and beyond a few grisly crime photos we don’t see much in terms of evidence. Instead, we remain fixated on Lise: how she looks, how she apprehends what everyone says about her and how she tries to defend herself.
Carried very much by newcomer Melissa Guers’ lead turn, in which she is often asked to show no expression at all, The Girl With a Bracelet puts the viewer in the role of judge along with the rest of the courtroom, whose main players include a combative public prosecutor (played by the director’s sister, Anaïs Demoustier), a wise defense attorney (Annie Mercier) and Lise’s parents (Roschdy Zem and Chiara Mastroianni), who do all they can to help their daughter, yet may harbor some doubts themselves.
In the film’s effectively staged opening sequence, we see Lise on the beach with her family, enjoying a day in the sun. Without warning, a pair of gendarmes descends on their quiet gathering. We can’t hear what they’re saying, but soon Lise marches off with them. And then we cut to two years later on the eve of the murder trial, with the remainder of the movie taking place inside the courthouse or in Lise’s own home.
That first scene, however anticlimactic as it seems, is actually the key to the drama. While she’s on the stand, Lise is accused of being too passive at the time of her arrest. In many other instances, the prosecutor and the magistrates (in a French homicide trial, the judges have the right to directly interrogate suspects and witnesses), her behavior is deemed inappropriate for someone who claims to be innocent. Why doesn’t she break down under questioning? Why doesn’t she cry? Why is she so cold?
These questions are coupled with snippets of info that come out during the trial, such as the fact that Lise and the victim were best buds until the latter posted a sex tape of Lise online, seemingly out of jealousy. Other details of Lise’s private life emerge: we learn that she’s a promiscuous teenager and is actually seeing a guy who sneaks into the house while she’s under house arrest. Later on, it emerges that Lise and the victim dabbled in sexual experimentation together, which Lise sees as completely normal.
Rather than judging her for the case at hand, most of the adults in the room — and by extension, we the audience — begin to judge Lise for her behavior, which, frankly, appears to be that of a typical teenager (or at least typical for France in 2019). And it’s those suppositions that make her seem like she could be the culprit, rather than the scant evidence presented in court or the testimony heard from a handful of witnesses.
And yet, even if we want to believe — or at least try to convince ourselves — that Lise is innocent, Demoustier craftily keeps the guessing game going until the final reel, leaving us doubting our own doubts and never fully assuaging our suspicions once the trial is over. Even when Lise finally reveals the emotional side we’ve all been waiting for (Guers is perfect in that short yet powerful scene), you can’t help but wonder if she’s been playing us all along, delivering the performance that will get her acquitted.
In essence, The Girl With a Bracelet is not your usual courtroom drama in the way of Acusada (as the original movie, which was just released in France, is called) or other films of the genre. What Demoustier has done here, and done quite successfully, is taken a basic mystery plot, like something out of a TV movie, and used it to ponder how each one of us could react to a ghastly crime, and how we expect others to react in turn. It’s a film that asks more questions than it really answers, with the ultimate one being: Is Lise guilty of committing murder, or simply guilty for being herself?
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Production company: Petit Film
Cast: Melissa Guers, Roschdy Zem, Anaïs Demoustier, Chiara Mastroianni, Annie Mercier, Pascal-Pierre Garbarini
Director, screenwriter: Stéphane Demoustier, based on the script of Acusada by G. Tobal and U. Porra Guardiola
Producer: Jean des Fôrets
Director of photography: Sylvain Verdet
Production designer: Catherine Cosme
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Editor: Damien Maestraggi
Composer: Carla Pallone
Casting directors: Marine Albert, Brigitte Moidon