At the World Cinema Showcase, crime and punishment in Vincent Garenq’s harrowing reconstruction of the ‘Outreau Affair’.
Intense and angering, Presumed Guilty—television documentarian Vincent Garenq’s biopic of one of France’s most infamous “judicial disaster(s),” to quote then French President Jacques Chirac)—makes for uncomfortable but necessary viewing. Stories of grave injustice born of public hysteria and the need of governing bodies to assuage the inflamed populace must be aired so that we cease to offer up scapegoats to bear the responsibility for our collective sense of guilt and complicity.
Depicting the awful ordeal of Alain Marécaux, Presumed Guilty alights upon the central character as the Outreau constabulary descend upon his home arresting both he and his wife Edith and removing their children from their custody on accusations of child sexual abuse, incest, and involvement in a local “child sex ring.” The film then follows the course of Marécaux’s trial, subsequent imprisonment, and various appeals as he maintains his innocence and watches his life fragment in front of him.
Cinematically, Garenq keeps the frame pretty tight following his beleaguered protagonist Alain Marécaux (a gripping performance by Philippe Torreton) documentary style, lending the film a sense of immediacy that brings the tensions to the fore. Torreton—who you may recognise from his lead role in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1999 social commentary drama It All Starts Today—proves the perfect casting choice, giving Alain Marécaux an understated intensity and sadness with his performance. He also brings an onscreen ‘physicality’ that would, I am sure, be admired by the brothers Dardenne who are known for their visual obsession with actors’ postures and movements. And like both Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Christian Bale in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, Torreton puts his health and body on the line to portray Marécaux’s transformation from a thick wasted middle-aged man into the wasted frame of a near-to-death hunger striker.
Garenq’s film is in the vein of Jim Sheridan’s 1993 feature In the Name of the Father, an adaptation of the false imprisonment of the Guildford four convicted of the Guildford pub bombings of 1974. Both films are based on the autobiography of one of the primary defendants, but do differ: where Sheridan’s film explores a highly politicised crime with widespread damage (the bombings resulted in five deaths and 65 people injured), Garenq’s biopic explores a more personalised set of incidents collectively known as the ‘Outreau Affair’ involving a child sex ring. Perhaps in scale, Presumed Guilty shares more in common with the case of the ‘West Memphis Three’ as outlined in the three part documentary series Paradise Lost from directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Indeed there is even a chord struck with relatively recent New Zealand legal history in the case of David Bain’s imprisonment in 1995 for the murder of his entire family, finally acquitted after 14 years in prison when the jury in the 2009 retrial concluded ‘reasonable doubt’ about the case against him and delivered a verdict of ‘not guilty’ in June of that year. Despite the many varied differences between these films and situations they hold are several key thematic threads in common. Foremost of these is the effect of public pressure when applied to policial and judicial institutions faced with highly visible and reprehensible cases. In all these cases, evidence and process was later found to have been either ignored, interfered with, or prejudicial in the aid of getting the conviction the public ‘needed’ to find a place to lay their blame, hurt, and indignation. The same issues were seen to play out post 9/11 with the (long) felt need to find and ‘bring justice to bear’ upon Osama bin Laden. Miscarriages of justice such as these will continue to arise, but those stories should continue to be told both for the sake of the unjustly punished and more so for us all as a reminder for the need be cautious and methodical when dispensing justice—especially in the wake of great tragedy.
Having not properly read the film’s notes, it wasn’t until the end credits rolled that I realised that this feature was not merely an excellently constructed fiction film about injustice, public pressure, and the French legal system, but actually a retelling of true events. I was alerted upon seeing the real life central character, Alain Marécaux, and his lawyer Hubert Delarue referred to as consultants to the film with writing credits. Personally—and I must confess that my buttons are particularly pushed by instances of real life injustice of this nature—I found watching this film an emotionally (and to a lesser degree physically) traumatic experience, requiring significant wind down time post viewing. If this can be seen as an endorsement, then Presumed Guilty is a singularly artful representation of Marécaux’s harrowing story and the broader judicial and social ramifications housed within.