Guilty (Presume coupable): Film Review

Devastating drama about the greatest French judicial scandal in recent history.

French writer-director Vincent Garenq gives a gripping account of the travails of a family man caught in a quagmire of false testimonies and legal blunders in this sensational true story of French jurisprudence gone astray.

PARIS — A riveting account of one man’s descent into legal purgatory, Guilty (Presume coupable) reps a striking second feature from writer-director Vincent Garenq, with enough breakout potential to jolt art-house audiences both at home and abroad. Ripped from the headlines of the Affaire d’Outreau– a French judicial disaster which began in 2001 when 17 people were wrongly accused of child rape and jailed without due recourse – the film features a tour-de-force performance from Philippe Torreton, plunging the viewer into events that are all the more tragic in that they’re 100% true.

Filmed with a handheld immediacy that recalls Jacques Audiard’sA Prophet, and equally revealing of how a person can be transformed by life behind bars, Guiltyis nonetheless an entirely different beast: In this gripping depiction of the travails of Alain Marecaux (Torreton), a family man who finds himself caught in a quagmire of false testimonies and legal blunders, there is little redemption at the end of a four-year tunnel that begins when he and his wife (Noemie Lvovsky) are arrested for allegedly molesting children in the nearby town of Outreau (located in northern France).

Separated from his loved ones and forced to suffer the wrath of finger-pointing cops and a power-tripping young judge, Burgaud (Raphael Ferret), Marecaux can claim his innocence all he wants – nobody listens to the “pedophile,” even if his crimes are yet to be proven. He eventually finds help with the defense attorney Hubert Delarue (Vladimir Yordanoff), whose numerous appeals are thrown out by a judge who believes he’s landed the trial of a lifetime, and who’s afraid that even temporarily freeing Marecaux will influence the outcome of the case.

Adapting from Marecaux’s autobiography and sticking to his point of view from start to finish, Garenq (Baby Love) reveals with painstaking accuracy how the hubris of Burgaud, combined with a legal bureaucracy that’s left unchecked, resulted in tremendous physical and psychological suffering among the accused. (Of the 17 Outreau defendants, many saw private and professional lives destroyed, and one died while in custody.)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the various, claustrophobic scenes showing Marecaux in prison as he receives one rejection letter after another, cut off from his wife (who’s released much earlier) and children as his situation shifts from troubling to appalling. When his court date finally arrives, the trial itself a travesty, with the testimony of a damaged little boy and his illiterate parents – who look like they belong in a Bruno Dumont movie – serving as the only proof in a case that’s as weak as it is illogical.

Propelling himself into Marecaux’s shoes in a manner that recalls Michael Fassbender’s jarring turn in Hunger, Torreton (L. 627, Captain Conan) portrays an average Joe whose existence is turned upside down, and who internalizes his anguish to the point that it starts eating away at his whole body. Although the actor is at the center of the frame almost all the time, there’s little showboating in his performance, where the slightest gesture – such as watching a New Year’s celebration from his prison cell window – speaks wonders.

Despite nearly 100 minutes of full-fledged drama, Guiltysomewhat loses steam in its closing scenes, which are a tad too anticlimactic given everything which preceded them. Considering the outcome of the Outreau affair, this is not surprising, but Garenq still could have found a way to pack more punch into the finale.

Tech contributions are terrific, especially the bleak widescreen imagery of Renaud Chassaing (Caged).

Venues: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days); Paris Cinema Film Festival
Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, France 3 Cinema, Artemis Productions
Cast: Philippe Torreton, Vladimir Yordanoff, Noemie Lvovsky, Raphael Ferret, Michele Goddet, Farida Ouchani, Olivier Claverie, Jean-Pierre Bagot, Sarah Lecarpentier
Director: Vincent Garenq
Screenwriters: Vincent Garenq, Alain Marecaux, Serge Frydman, Hubert Delarue
Based on the book by: Alain Marecaux
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producer: Eve Francois-Machuel
Director of photography: Renaud Chassaing
Production designer: Yves Brover
Costume designer: Fanny Drouin
Editor: Dorian Rigal-Ansous
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 101 minutes