‘Présumé Coupable’ is frustratingly good

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Présumé Coupable (English title: Guilty)

Directed by Vincent Garenq

Screenplay by Vincent Garenq and Serge Frydman

France. 2011

There are few things which can grip a nation’s passions quite like a striking, controversial and prolonged court case. In some instances, the nature of the crime is what shocks, as in the Canadian case involving B.C. Pig farmer Robert Pickton, who for years preyed on hookers are drug users in Vancouver. Other examples stun for their conclusion, like with the infamous O.J. Simpson trial in the United States. Then come the trials for which both the nature of the crimes and conclusions are overshadowed by the actual process of conviction, a perfect example being the Outreau case in France, which director Vincent Garenq explores in its entirety in Présumé coupable.

It is the middle of the night when the Marécaux residence is abruptly disturbed from its slumber. An alarming number of police officers await at their door and, puzzled but not wanting trouble, Alain Marécaux (Philippe Terreton) allows them in, only to be immediately put under arrest, as is his wife Édith (Noémie Lvovsky. Much to their disbelief, each is accused of engaging in group acts of paedophilia, along with 11 other people whom they do not know, or so they claim. As the police interrogations accumulate, it becomes increasingly evident that whatever Alain says will not satisfy the authorities. Unable to see his wife nor their children, Alain’s life is utterly disintegrated before his very eyes. His lawyer, Hubert Delarue (Wladimir Yordanoff) does what he can but he even suspects the case to be driven by certain grave irregularities, although the accusations come in firmly and confidently from the other side, in particular judge Burgaud (Raphaël Ferret), unflappable in his steadfastness in accusing Alain of crimes the latter denies.

Director Vincent Garenq’s latest effort takes viewers deep into the Outreau case, which lasted from 2001 to 2005, so deep in fact that the film stretches the story from the night of Alain and Édith’s arrest to the affair’s eventual conclusion. There were of course several possible venues for the director to choose from as to which people would receive the spotlight. Awarding all the major players comparable screen time, from lawyers, to judges, to victims and the accused would have been one such possibility. Rather than incur the risk of overextending his reach, the director of Garenq prefers to have the audience follow Alain for the film’s entirety, making them live the man’s nightmarish plight alongside him. No stone is left unturned in the film as far as what he went through during those four harrowing years. One of the film’s many strengths is precisely in its ability to give the impression, in under two hours, that the viewer has indeed been on a wild and harrowing journey with Alain. The film’s hand held, faux documentary style is one movie goers see on a regular basis these days, although one can make the case that it fits the nature of Présumé‘s story, constructing a grim, harsh tone. Only very rarely does the film play scenes with overt sentimentality in the hopes of tugging heartstrings. Whatever emotions are wrought out of the audience, of which there will surely be some, derive from the bitter, gritty reality with which director Garenq presents the situations and how actor Philippe Terreton commits himself to the role.  The latter puts on an impressive performance of a man whose initial surprise at the what is occurring morphs into frustration at whichever unknown forces are behind these events and eventually into despair, when his character goes to considerable lengths to prove his innocence. Through his mesmerizing role Terreton truly ‘lives’ the Outreau affair.

Among other standout performances are those of Wladimir Yordanoff, who portrays Alain’s lawyer, and Raphaël Ferret, the lower court judge who presides over the affair in the early goings of the picture. Yordanoff injects the film with a sense of hopefulness, creating a character who continuously believes that their side shall be proven right in the end despite however many unexpected and, quite frankly, bizarre hurdles are thrown their way. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Ferret, who is so cold and unforgiving as the judge. Despite what such a description might comes across as, the film does not make him out to be an over the top villain. There are forces at play which remain mysterious until the end, and therefore the viewer gets the sense that Ferret’s characters is merely doing his job, however infuriating the character is. One wants to completely strangle Raphaël Ferret for stubbornness with which his waves away the pleas and arguments from Alain’s lawyer and the protagonist himself. Proof that one does not need supernatural powers to be a great villain.

His scenes produce some of the desired dramatic effects of having the film follow the journey strictly from Alain’s perspective. When confronted with judge Burgaud, among many other people, there is a sense of injustice on display. Alain’s predicament is given a bitter, stark reality through his judicial confrontations with the host of people who would like nothing better than to see him behind bars. The potential argument against Présumé  therefore is that it is too manipulative, depicting a series of wrongs which were done against one man and his family, failing to resort to an equilibrium of viewpoints, as is so frequently the case in typical courtroom dramas. That is true only to a certain degree, for the film plays its cards far more intelligently than that. The examples are threefold. For one, during the first half hour or so, certain pieces of evidence, be they physical props or testimonies, are brought to light which cast shadows of doubt over Alain’s head. Just when the viewer thinks a grave injustice is transpiring, a revelation or discovery is made that suddenly forces the viewer to questions the validity of Alain’s claims. Secondly, it becomes obvious that either no innocent man would behave the way he does after several months in prison or if he were guilty in some fashion or another, there is a good explanation behind it. With his innocence growing ever less doubtful in the mind of the audience, one can more willfully align one’s sympathies with Alain. The third and most crucial aspect is that the film is based on real events. Anybody curious enough to read up on the history of the case will discover that the entire story was really quite amazing in how the French judicial system handled Alain’s presumed guilt. By the time the case is brought to a higher appellate court, the full blown proportions of just what exactly is being done are made fully evident. It is in this final act in which director Garenq allows for a crescendo of emotions to be unleashed.  This release has been completely earned after all the intense buildup and mystery surrounding the story, functioning as a form of catharsis for the protagonist and the audience together.

Présumé Coupable is frustrating for all the right reasons. Brilliant acting and intelligent direction bring to life of the most extraordinary court cases in recent French memory. Intrigue, compelling characters and a rousing finale make Présumé guilty of being a fine piece of cinema.

Edgar Chaput

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