The Belgian actor and director Lucas Belvaux became known as a filmmaker for his ambitious trilogy released in 2002, comprised of three films from different genres: Un Couple Épatant (comedy), Cavale (thriller) and Après la Vie (melodrama). They won the French Critics Syndicate Film of The Year Award and established Belvaux as one of the most promising francophone directors at that time.
It took a while until he met expectations with a great thriller called Rapt (2009). The film, freely inspired by the kidnapping of an influential French industrialist in the 70’s, functions as a study of the pragmatic, individualist and voyeuristic societies in which we live today. Belvaux doesn’t judge the protagonist, the victim of a horrible brutality but also regarded as an arrogant human being. At the same time, he has to show a lot of strength as the company board refuses to pay a 50-million euro ransom and his secret love affairs are discovered by the tabloids, becoming widely exposed.
His following project, 38 Witnesses (38 Témoins), which opened this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, is a very interesting counterpoint to some of the questions raised by Rapt, and even though it is not affiliated to a specific genre like the others, shows the same cinematic strength.
Once again Belvaux takes as a starting point a true story: the murder of Kitty Genovese in the 60’s in New York. She was stabbed to death late in the evening in front of her house, and none of the supposed 38 witnesses reported having seen or heard anything. This general omission prompted a series of psychological studies that led to what became known as “Genovese Syndrome”. In adapting the story to be set in current-day Le Havre in France, Belvaux reinforces the notion that this social phenomenon might be present anywhere nowadays.
After the girl’s killing Pierre (Yvan Attal), a harbour pilot who lives in the building in front of the murder scene, is reluctant but finally becomes the only one to admit to having seen something. From this moment on, all his neighbours turn very hostile towards him, his wife and the journalist assigned to investigate the mysterious circumstances.
The screenplay is carefully structured in such a way that the audience, so involved in the mystery, tries to solve this intricate puzzle and, further, reflects on the social behaviour of each character. It is possible to establish a parallel among the voyeurism seen in Rapt and in this film. The (never seen) ordinary people devoted to gossip about the kidnapping in the previous film might be the ones who, in 38 Witnesses, experience the other side of the coin and do not accept having their lives exposed in the newspaper as supposed witnesses of a murder.
That mixture of fear and anger from the neighbours embodies the mystery and is never quite justified, which makes the film resemble, in a certain way, the psychological atmosphere of Michael Haneke’s cinema. As in films like Hidden (Caché), we can feel the sickness of modern society with subtlety, without it being imposed by a pre-existing thesis. This capacity of transmitting his message through atmosphere and moods (especially when using music and sound design) shows maturity in Belvaux’s work as a director and makes the film even more fascinating. In the wrong hands, a character such as the mysterious person that is seen on the balcony every time Pierre looks through the window could have seemed just a tricky device to increase the suspense, but Belveaux knows how to make us feel the same anguish that it is in Pierre’s mind, and that is the reason why the film succeeds on every level.
© FIPRESCI 2012