“We won’t get the truth,” Court President Racine (Fabrice Luchini) tells his assembled jury. “Our job is to apply the law. Show people what they can and cannot do.” This baldly-stated realism and modesty could just as easily apply to Christian Vincent’s slick if not world-shattering comedy Courted (2015) – the French title L’hermine, literally ‘ermine’, is much less sloppy. Racine is a reserved man, cordially disliked by court functionaries who think him something of a cold fish and gleefully pass on gossip about him in the loos. To make matters worse, he is also suffering from a terrible bout of the flu and his mood is unimproved by the fact that he is in the midst of a divorce.
Courted begins like a Moliere-style comedy, bringing down an extreme character similar perhaps to Luchini’s wonderfully monstrous husband in 2010’s Potiche. However, the initial comic set-up does not play out and instead, as the court is called to session, the film becomes interested in procedure. The court case to be examined is a horrible one, jarring expectations of a light comedy. A father (Victor Pontecorvo) stands accused of having kicked his seven-month-old daughter to death “with his combat boots”. The mother of his child, Jessica (Miss Ming), sits in the court, a damaged wreck. Racine, resplendent in his ermine, is transformed into the wholly competent master of his own domain.
We begin to spy, in his acute attention to detail, a previously hidden humanity and a genuine moral seriousness, even as he singly fails to get a witness to address him correctly – “Oui, M. Judge”, “M. President”. The jury go for lunch following the first hearing and we meet a nice array of diverse characters. There’s an unemployed grandmother, the class clown, the shy young Arab girl etc. Our attention is shifted towards them and with the court case now in the foreground, it might be reasonable to presume that this is going to become a courtroom drama – but again no. Racine, it turns out, is divorcing amicably – so no comedy there – and is embarking on a nascent relationship with one of the jurors, a Danish anaesthetist (Sidse Babett Knudsen) whom he met while having his hip operation, and is shocked to see called onto his jury. When he meets her for dinner that evening the possibility comes to mind that this could now become a case of dangerous liaisons with farcical potential, but Racine nips that idea in the bud. “It’s unconventional, but not illegal,” he quickly asserts when Ditte asks if they might get into trouble.
It’s Vincent’s obstinate refusal to slip into a familiar genre that makes Courted such an oddly interesting and almost anti-dramatic film. The characters look like comic types at a distance but once we approach they become human beings with all the enigmatic complexity that entails. The acting throughout is thoroughly credible and the interactions continually provide a surprising depth, as when Ditte’s 17-year-old daughter (Eva Lallier) tags along to Racine and Ditte’s second rendezvous. The refusal to go the easy route is admirable but in the midst of all these discarded possibilities it’s possible that what we’re left with is as elusive as the sought after ‘truth’. And yet Racine warns us that this is not what we’re going to get anyway – perhaps this generically slippery slice-of-life should simply be taken for what it is.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.