Courted (France 2015) Written and directed by Christian Vincent
Much more appropriately named 'L’Hermine' in the original French to signal both the fur-trimmed costume worn by a judge as well as his stoat-like watchfulness, 'Courted' is not a plot-driven film. Yet what it lacks in narrative drive it gains in some beautiful character sketches, a delicately depicted mother/daughter relationship and a fascinating insight into the French legal process.
The film tells two interweaving tales, one about a disturbing court case in which a young father is charged with murdering his seven-month-old daughter, the other about the tentative friendship growing between Michel and Ditte, the film’s protagonists. When the court case is the matter at hand, it is the institution of the court that is the primary focus rather than the drama of the case.
Released in France in 2015, writer-director Christian Vincent’s low-key feature has just arrived in the UK and has been screened at only eight cinemas so far. This is a shame because in addition to winning the best screenplay award at the Venice International Film Festival, 'Courted' has two wonderful central performances, both of them deserving winners at Venice and the French Césars.
Fabrice Luchino, who was the gloriously ghastly husband in 'Potiche' (2010) and the man downstairs in 'The Women on the 6th Floor' (2011), plays the reserved, punctilious judge, Michel Racine, president of the Assize Court in Saint-Omer. An assize court is a criminal trial court involving crimes punishable by over 10 years in prison. It is the only French court that uses a jury.
An uptight man not well liked by his colleagues, Michel is living in a hotel pending a divorce and suffering from the onset of a bad bout of flu. As 'Courted' begins, he readies himself to preside over the trial of a young father, Martial, charged with kicking to death his baby daughter, Melissa. On entering the court Michel recognises one of the jurors as Ditte, the woman with whom he was once deeply in love.
Played by Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ditte speaks impeccable French with a slight accent, explained by a childhood in Copenhagen. She is an anaesthetist. On waking from his operation six years before, Ditte’s face was the first thing Michel saw: 'the most beautiful thing I ever laid eyes on’, he later recalls when, in a rare breach of protocol, the pair meet for coffee. In the lighthearted dinner scene she shares with her delightful teenage daughter, Knudsen glows. Tightly framed, her smiling face lights up the screen in a way reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman.
Both lead actors have a rare capacity for stillness and restraint, lending their characters heft and presence. Luchino’s weary melancholic type is honed to a tee and finds its perfect foil in Knudsen, here allowed a more playful and receptive side than the focused persona she deployed to such brittle effect in 'The Duke of Burgundy' (2015) and in the television series 'Borgen'.
It is clear from the way Michel’s stern exterior cracks in the course of the film that he remains in love with Ditte. It is less clear what her feelings are towards him. She remains a radiantly warm yet enigmatic presence right up to the closing credits. The final scene does though offer a teasing clue: We see her in court watching the judge as he swears in another jury; she is wearing the same lace dress he so admired when she wore it to dinner with him on their first date.
There is a documentary feel to the courtroom action that is affecting and unusual compared with Hollywood courtroom dramas. Cinematographer Laurent Daillard’s muted palette and medium-to-wide-angled shots underscore the fact that we, and the audience in the courtroom gallery, are mere onlookers, and the jury itself knows nothing for sure. In contrast, the meetings with Ditte are filmed in extreme close-up and in darker, more saturated colours, as if to highlight a world totally separate from that of the court.
We witness the selection of the jurors, see that both prosecution and defence have the right to refuse a juror without stating a reason; we experience the arcane language of the trial, jurors failing to turn up, lawyers nipping out clutching phones to take calls about other cases. We also gain an insight into the operation of a French court as inquisitional rather than adversarial: six randomly selected jurors sit on the same raised panel with three judges in a long line-up facing the defendant.
Michel takes his responsibility as senior judge very seriously, directing jurors on points of law, questioning the different parties and inviting jurors to do the same. In doing so he reveals a strong sense of humanity behind the chilly exterior. The accused refuses to speak, except to repeat 'I didn’t do it' and his damaged, heavily drugged wife is equally inarticulate. Michel tells the jury that in a case such as this where so little is known of the facts, their job is simply to 'apply the law’. He directs them to bear in mind that in future more of the facts may emerge. (In France public prosecutors may appeal an acquittal on points of fact as well as procedure.)
Some beautifully paced humour leavens the seriousness of the case. None of the witnesses calls the judge by his formal title of 'Monsieur le Président’ despite his repeated frustrated efforts. The 'M. le Juge’ rather than 'M. Le Président’ is both a well-played running joke and a tart illustration of the character’s awareness of himself as just one judge among many.
The mood of 'Courted' is reflective and contemplative. What raises it above the merely enjoyable is its moral seriousness – the recognition that truth and the law are very different things. This, together with a focus on ordinary people doing their civic duty, is oddly moving. 'Courted' will reel you in far more insistently and effectively than a compelling courtroom drama of heightened tension. It is not a film for people who like everything tied up neatly in the end.