Winner of the Best Actor and Best Screenplay awards at this year's Venice Film Festival, Christian Vincent's dryly comic courtroom drama was selected as the opening film for the 44th Hong Kong French Cinepanorama on 18 November.
Michel Racine (Fabrice Luchini) is a largely despised Criminal Court judge in a small town near Calais in Northern France. With a reputation for running a strict courtroom and handing out hefty sentences, neither the barristers, bailiffs, artists nor stenographers have anything approaching a kind word to say to or about him. Racine's home life seems equally cold, with an absent wife and elderly housekeeper as the only figures in his world.
Overseeing a rather gruesome murder case, in which a rough-looking young father is accused of bludgeoning his infant daughter to death, Racine is far more focused on fighting the flu - while his colleagues suspect he may just be hungover. He is thrown through a loop when Ditte Lorensen-Coteret (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is selected for jury duty. At first it is unclear why exactly the presence of this woman might affect such an emotionally closed-off man, but it transpires that they do share a strangely intimate history.
Despite the shocking nature of the case at hand, Vincent's screenplay retains a dry wit and lighthearted tone by focusing on the daily grind of working the courthouse, and the inconvenience jury duty poses to those selected - rather than on the emotional maelstrom that is the family of the young victim. We catch glimpses of the jury's heated discussions, but Vincent prefers to let us spend time with them during their lunch break - when they are not permitted to discuss the case - rather than allow us to witness their deliberations.
Danish actress Side Babett Knudsen, perhaps best known for the TV drama series Borgen, but seen recently in Peter Strickland's excellent The Duke of Burgundy, is positively radiant as the single mother and anaesthesiologist who has an unlikely admirer in the highly strung Racine. Together with young Eva Lallier, who plays her precocious 17-year-old daughter, these effortlessly glamorous women threaten to hijack the entire project, were Luchini's curmudgeon not so frustratingly endearing.
Far from a showy performance, Racine feels completely real and and run down, to the extent that Luchini manages to convey decades of loneliness and personal failure buried within a man who has achieved a small amount of professional success. His persistent correcting of witnesses who refer to him as "judge" rather than "your honour" goes beyond being merely a stickler for regulations, betraying his pedantry, pride and pompous superiority in this working class environment
We glimpse class conflicts, racial and religious tensions, professional incompetence and of course, at the film's centre, the hideous death of a child. But thanks to a string of naturalistic, relatable and utterly endearing performances, coupled with a script that acknowledges that our petty rituals and desires too often distract us from life's greater problems, and Courted emerges as a curiously entertaining film about people, rather than judicial procedure.
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