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A vinegary, recently divorced French criminal court judge feared by everyone turns into a middle-aged softie when confronted with a juror he once loved in Courted (L’Hermine), the latest film of French writer-director Christian Vincent (Four Stars, Haute Cuisine). Slightly grittier and even less plot-driven than the director’s last few films, which were extremely polished and set in places like fancy hotels or presidential palaces, this is a rather uneventful tale of a man dreaming away about what might have been while he presides over a case involving the death of a 7-month-old baby. With French star Fabrice Luchini, who headlined Vincent’s 1990 feature La Discrete, in the lead, this should do at least decent business when Gaumont releases it locally mid-November. But this Venice competition entry will have a much tougher time in countries where he’s not a household name, though the presence of Sidse Babett Knudsen, the Prime Minister from Borgen, might give it a leg up in Scandinavia and selected other territories.
When the film opens, Court President Racine (Luchini) is somewhat crabby, though if those in and around the courthouse are to be believed, this has nothing to with the fact he caught the flu the night before a big trial. He’s extremely demanding and not very friendly, with someone referring to him as an “icy wind” and someone else — practically all peripheral characters are unidentified bystanders — explaining Racine’s severity, he’s known for giving at least 10 years in prison for practically all offenses.
Dealing with major criminal cases, a French Assize Court, like Racine’s in Saint-Omer, in France’s northwestern corner, also features a jury chosen from ordinary citizens. While trying to survive on pain killers the next day, the court president is shocked to discover that one of the jurors of that day’s case, randomly picked from a larger pool, turns out to be Ditte Lorensen-Coteret (Knudsen), a Franco-Danish anesthetist he met when he was hospitalized some years earlier. The screenplay, also written by Vincent, initially tries to concentrate, like Racine, on the courtcase at hand, with the trial involving a taciturn and not very collaborative young man (Victor Pontecorvo) who’s accused of having kicked the 7-month-old baby he had with his partner, Jessica (Miss Ming) to death, though his deposition sounds confused and Jessica’s role is far from clear. Over lunch break, and later, after the first full day of the trial, Racine tries to get into touch with Ditte again and she agrees to see him in a café nearby.
Cinematographer Laurent Dailland gives the light-colored, space-filled court scenes a slightly rough air, as if the sordid case discussed somehow affects the atmosphere of such a revered institution. Here, his shots are all medium or wide, to help suggest — as one of the characters does, all too literally — that the courthouse is like a theatre with an audience and a stage with actors/judges. The meetings with Ditte, on the other hand, are all filmed in extreme closeups and saturated dark colors, as if they were taking place in a universe entirely divorced from the court.
What’s interesting, of course, is how the investigative case and the, well, sort-of courtship both consist of confessions, reactions and people trying to judge what’s real and what’s the best course of action in light of what appear to be the facts. But instead of exploring this fascinating contrast, Vincent spends too much time with supporting characters and subplots that don’t go anywhere. A visit to the home of Racine’s wife, who’s divorcing him and leaving town soon, adds little and there’s a short interlude in which the film forgets about Racine’s perspective altogether and suddenly follows Ditte home, where she has dinner with her cell phone-addicted 17-year-old (Eva Lallier). But there are graver problems, including the fact that the entire plot strand involving Racine and Lorensen-Coteret is rather light on interesting developments itself, with Luchini’s character, during their first reunion, giving a long exposition-filled talk to fill in their backstory — even though she must know all he tells her already — and their second meeting disturbed by the arrival of someone else.
The film’s main problem is that it can’t decide what it wants to be and ends up not having enough time to develop anything in any depth. The plot involving the lead’s private lives isn’t romantic as much as more mutedly melancholic, while there’s an almost documentary-like edge to the material involving the case. Indeed, this is decidedly not a courtroom thriller, with Vincent more interested in using the dead baby affair to illuminate how the court works rather than in any suspense it could generate (the outcome is almost perfunctory). What remains is another typically fine performance from Luchini, who manages to inject some humanity into his character’s rather crude transformation from sourpuss into warmhearted dreamer, and a rare French-language turn from Knudsen (who studied acting in Paris), a warm but finally enigmatic presence.
Production companies: Albertine Productions, Cinefrance 1888,
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Miss Ming, Michael Abiteboul, Eva Lallier, Victor Pontecorvo, Corinne Masiero
Writer-Director: Christian Vincent
Producers: Sidonie Dumas, Matthieu Tarot
Director of photography: Laurent Dailland
Production designer: Patrick Durand
Costume designer: Carole Gerard
Editor: Yves Deschamps
Music: Claire Denamur
Casting: Tatiana Vialle
No rating, 98 minutes
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