★★★

Despite its bland paperback title, French writer-director Stéphane Demoustier proves hasty assumptions wrong with his gripping, thoughtful third feature, courtroom drama The Girl With a Bracelet. On the night before her trial, 18-year-old Lise Bataille (Melissa Guers) stands accused of murdering her best friend, Flora.

In her first role, Guers is supported by an extremely able cast that includes French veteran Chiara Mastroianni (also starring in this month’s On a Magical Night) as her mother, but it’s the young actor who is the film’s standout. Through a taciturn performance that is largely confined to a courtroom chair, Guers conjures her Lise seemingly from the air around her. In one of the film’s only wide shots, we first glimpse a 16-year-old Lise from a distance, relaxing on the beach with her family before the police come and arrest her. This shot is key: her visual obscurity leads invariably to questions and assumptions about her character, assumptions that are later echoed in the courtroom.

That wide shot is contrasted with the largely static camera of the court, composed of flat, medium shots that give the impression of objective observation. In its forensic study of Lise’s features, the film invites us to study her responses, looking for an askew glance or inconsistent detail that might betray some deception. Lise’s conspicuousness is emphasised by a blue outfit that contrasts against the courtroom’s scarlet walls, whose sexual and violent symbolism conflate an unconscious presumption of guilt with Lise’s sexuality.

During the course of the trial, it transpires that Flora – whose body was covered in Lise’s DNA – was murdered on the night of a teenage house party, the same party at which Lise spent the night. The murder also happened soon after Flora went behind Lise’s back to post a video of her performing a sex act. Worse still, a knife set was found with Lise’s fingerprints, in which the single missing knife fits the description of the murder weapon. Motive, opportunity, means: it’s not looking good for Lise, an impression made worse by her monosyllabic responses that often revert to outright silence.

A sympathetic eye might put her emotional blankness down to trauma, but Demoustier ensures that we are all too conscious of a judging gaze that blurs the lines between facts and appearance. In a development that pays homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic 1960 sex-indictment drama, La Vérité, Lise’s sexual conduct becomes an increasingly fixed feature of the prosecution’s case. Smartly, we never learn whether Lise is guilty – to do so would miss the point. More potent is whether, in the case of young women acting with agency, the scales are tilted towards blind justice or moral judgement.

The Girl with a Bracelet is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from 26 June.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm