Monday, 2 January 2012

Présumé Coupable (Guilty) (2011)

Guilty unless proven innocent

Image: Mars Distribution

In recent years French cinema has given us some tremendous films depicting the lives of criminals, following them in and out of prison. Oscar contender Un Prophète was a masterfully drawn fiction, Mesrine (parts une and deux) a somewhat hagiographic telling of the story of France’s “public enemy number one” Jacques Mesrine.
Now comes a film telling the story of a rather different experience, that of an innocent man facing charges for crimes he did not commit. Alain Marécaux was arrested in 2001, along with 13 others, including his wife, after having his name associated with a child abuse ring. Despite a complete lack of evidence to support the shocking allegations, he remained in prison for 23 months. During this time his mother died, his relationship with his wife and children fell apart and he attempted suicide on numerous occasions, including a hunger strike which almost killed him. Based on the novel Chronique de Mon Erreur Judiciare by Marécaux, which recounted the shocking experiences he underwent, Présumé Coupable is something of an antithesis to the glorification of criminality seen in the aforementioned films.
There are moments when the film, mainly through Philippe Torreton’s subtle performance as Marécaux, taps uncomfortably deep into our innate fears of incarceration and false accusation. Marécaux is an everyman figure: far from perfect, but very much the innocent trapped in an escalating nightmare. For British viewers the affair has echoes of the South Ronaldsay “witchcraft” scandal in the apparently ludicrous but deadly serious nature of the case. People in the audience I watched it with, myself included, guffawed and tutted at various moments, as police coerced confessions and “witnesses” invented stories to fit the facts.
The film has a washed out aesthetic, similar to the bleak realism of the French television hit Engrenages, which also offers an often critical view of the French justice system. At times this brings it a little too close to looking like a TV Movie, but Vincent Garenq’s matter-of-fact direction is actually perfectly matched to the grim subject. Beyond one moment of hallucination, there is no cinematic trickery. Torreton’s weight loss to play the starved Marécaux is impressive but barely alluded to (though the scene where he is freed while looking like a living corpse is so depressing it almost becomes comical). We are afforded no real time for celebration at the climax, with only a short valedictory sequence and the usual explanatory captions leading into a hopeful moment narrated over the closing credits.
This is not a film which one will ‘enjoy’ in the usual sense, but it is certainly one which should be seen. The stark fact of the film is that Marécaux was not alone in suffering the way he did – each of the other accused probably deserves their own film. This, however, is an important and eye-opening account of a terrible miscarriage of justice, and if it can help in any part to avert the repetition of such events then this can only be a good thing.
Verdict: Downbeat and uncompromising, Présumé Coupable is not an easy film to watch, but its important central message and the touching and intense performance by Philippe Torreton make it one not to miss.

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