The Girl With A Bracelet (La fille au bracelet)

France (2019) Dir. Stéphane Demoustier

How do we tell what is the truth and what is a lie? Is it the story we are being told or the storyteller? The legendary allegory which exemplifies this dilemma is The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a powerful indictment of how our ability to trust the word of someone can be eroded through the constant abuse of a lie.

16 year-old Lise Batallie (Melissa Guers) is arrested during a family day out on the beach for the murder of her best friend Flora. Two years later, now 18 and on bail with a security tag around her ankle, Lise stands trial for this crime. Her father Bruno (Roschdy Zem) attends the court sessions every day, whilst mother Céline (Chiara Mastroianni) stays away due to work commitments.

A simple, unfussy plot provides the basic framework for this taut courtroom drama, a remake of an Argentinean film The Accused. Despite sounding like a classical painting, The Girl With A Bracelet takes us inside the French judicial process many of us will find bemusing and educational in its openness – i.e.: the defendant doesn’t just sit there and listen, they are regularly asked to respond to the points raised in the testimonies.

This makes for a far more riveting and intense experience, adding subtle layers to the drama usually undercut by the defendant having to remain silent until questioned. The result is a story that twists and turns on its own axis and not one by external influences or the usual plot beats of last minute witnesses, surprise evidence, or manipulation of any of the participants.

Director Stéphane Demoustier not only sat in on many court cases in preparation for this film, but also managed to secure the right to film inside a real court, with a genuine lawyer Pascal-Pierre Garbarini playing the President of the Court. Demoustier also learned that the chief prosecutor, a role he had cast with a 60 year-old male actor, was quite often a female in her 30s; hence casting his own sister Anaïs Demoustier in the role.

Because of the low-key opening of the arrest, shot at a distance with no audible dialogue then the time skip to two years later, we are spared the usual dramatic build up to the case to prevent us from being prejudiced against Lise, but crucially, we don’t even know what the crime is she is supposed to have committed. All we know is she is oddly unfazed by the whole situation, when most people would be bricking it.

Lise’s personality is therefore the conceit of the story – is she a cold blooded killer with no discernible sense of remorse or even an idea of what she has done, or just a stroppy teen handling it her own way? It is not just the jury and the judge who needs to discover this but the audience too, putting us all in Demoustier’s hands and entrusting him to reveal all in a compelling fashion having withheld this information hitherto.

So, Lise is accused of stabbing Flora after a party Flora held having stayed over. Lise showing no remorse or grief at the loss of her best friend could be for a variety of reasons. For the prosecution, it is a vital part of the case against Lise; for the jury and us, it is hard not to decipher the nonchalance and ambivalence of Lise’s deadpan replies after seeing pictures of Flora’s dead body as coldness, yet we can’t be sure.

Further testimonies reveal a falling out with Flora over a video she posted online of Lise fellating a boy, Nathan (Mikaël Halimi). Lise was understandably furious and demanded Flora removed the video, saying she would kill her if she didn’t. The pair then made up ahead of the fateful party, where they drank and did much more as Lise later reveals.

Now we have a possible motive. The defence counsel (Annie Mercier) shows a video from the party illustrating how well the girls were getting on to counter the claim Flora was terrified of Lise; the prosecution insists Flora was acting like that out of fear – a typical example of the prosecution twisting anything to suit her narrative (which is her job) whilst undermining her own credibility, deftly swaying audience opinion in Lise’s favour.

With the stories past and present unfolding before our eyes at the same time the court hears them, the crux of the issue remains how trustworthy Lise is. At one point, she is exposed as being sexually adventurous or “easy,” which turns into a line of questioning. Lise defiantly asks why Nathan isn’t under the same scrutiny as he is “easy” too – or is that only reserved for girls, a cogent reminder of how we should be judging Lise.

Right up to the end, nothing is given away, the script is cleverly laid out so the audience can’t jump ahead of the characters then wait for their suspicions to either be confirmed or denied. Demoustier resists temptation for artistic flair, keeping the tone as neutral and natural as possible, both in an out of the courtroom. Tension in the family home does not encroach on the court case, only buttresses the central theme of if to believe Lise or not.

Carrying the film with incredible poise, maturity, and lack of artifice is debutant Melissa Guers, tasked with keeping Lise cool and hard to read whilst the tumult inside is tearing her apart. She is ably supported by screen parents Roschdy Zem and Chiara Mastroianni, and the courtroom cast, Annie Mercier in particular is formidable.

The Girl With A Bracelet might be 95-minute info dump but that would be selling it short. It is a knotty, unpredictable, thought provoking drama that dispenses with convention to deliver an astute character study with a realistic urgency in challenging preconceptions during the search for the truth. Putting the audience in the seat of the juror rather than an impartial observer is a masterstroke.

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