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Koch Lorber presents
"On the facts, this seems simple."
DVD ReviewI'm not sure if it's the case in other countries, but here in the US, we've had a steady diet of courtroom reality television beginning with The People's Court, which has led into a plethora of other syndicated junk legal shows, culminating with the establishment of the Court TV channel. The legal drama has always been a fixture of books and films, but the emphasis is usually on drama, with flashy lawyers saving the case with some surprising flourish or bit of oratory. 10th District Court (10e chambre: Instants d'audience) doesn't have any of the usual flash we've come to expect in our legal entertainment; for one, it's a documentary, and secondly, it's about small things, from the crimes involved to the reactions of the people involved. I can't imagine it finding a large audience here, given the low-key nature of the film and American unfamiliarity with the French legal system, but if you enjoy the legal genre in general, you might find this worth a look.
Director Raymond Depardon first looked at the French legal system in a previous documentary, Délits flagrants; here, he managed to gain permission to put cameras within a French courtroom, something normally forbidden except in cases of national or historic importance. Using two cameras, he chose twelve cases to feature in the film. The cases generally traffic in the mundane: DWIs, theft, weapons charges, harassment. The people accused run the gamut as well, from apparently responsible citizens to career criminals to the mentally unstable. Tying everything together is the permanent presence of Michele Bernard-Requin, the judge (or "president" as the position is called in the French system) presiding over this particular court. The film, without narration or onscreen text apart from dates and times, simply moves from one case to the next, allowing us to judge for ourselves the efficacy of the judge, the accused, and the system itself.
The French system operates under a different principle than the American system; in France, the judge directs proceedings as the main questioner, rather than the adversarial attorney versus attorney setup we see in the US. The lawyers have comparitively little to do, at least as depicted in the cases shown here. Presumably higher stakes cases like murders and such feature more engaged attorneys. At any rate, Bernard-Requin questions each of the accused, eliciting what further information she can, in addition to listening to the inevitable excuses and justifications each person comes up with. Depardon usually keeps his camera on the accused, letting the viewer watch each person as Bernard-Requin questions them and their stories. By doing so, we can watch the changes, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, in each as they listen. I enjoyed seeing the faint hint of a smile on at least a couple faces as they were told once again of what they did.
What struck me while watching was the overall futility of trying to assign guilt or innocence to each person in the dock. Some were clearly guilty, some claimed either mitigating circumstances or other factors in their favor. But overall, we can't truly be sure justice is being done. Depardon also highlights potential problems in the system in the penultimate case, where a sociologist finds himself on trial for possessing an illegal knife. The sociologist, representing himself, argues that his knife is in fact legal, stating the measurements in the law itself versus what his knife measured at. Instead of taking this information under consideration, Bernard-Requin rebukes the man, almost showing contempt for his attempt to defend himself against the system. Inexplicably, the director ends the film without showing us the conclusion of this case and another case profiled; it is only in a panel discussion with a screening audience that we find out the resolution, and Bernard-Requin displays little sympathy here either.
American audiences who have cut their cinematic teeth on flashy courtroom drama will likely find Depardon's low key approach tame and uneventful. Only one of the accused shows much emotion at his fate, and he's one of the few who appear to be clearly guilty. Also. in a society used to seeing cases about grisly murders and other demented crimes, hearing about garden variety drunk drivers and thieves isn't likely to appeal. But, there are plenty of characters to study here, the president being one of them, and the subtlety of the approach has its own rewards.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original ratio of 1.66:1, the anamorphic transfer is clean and solid. The colors are presumably influenced by conditions within the courtroom, and they have a somewhat yellowish cast. Large, yellow subtitles are easy to read and understand.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Given the use of natural sound, the soundtrack doesn't have to be stellar, and the 2.0 track is plain and unadorned. It does the job just fine.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Extras Review: Two documentaries cover the film from two angles; the first is a discussion with Depardon (20m:38s), who goes into the ins and outs of how he shot the film, covering material such as why he decided to place his cameras where he did, and so on. The other is a "debate" with a screening audience (19m:10s), which features a panel including Depardon and Bernard-Requin. It does include the details of how the final two cases ended, so it's worth looking at for that, if nothing else. Two deleted scenes (8m:34s) feature footage from two more cases. The original French trailer is also on hand to tie things up.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsAn interesting, if somewhat dry look at the French justice system, 10th District Court isn't likely to appeal to mainstream viewers, even if it were in English. Still, for the observer, there are nuggets of interest to glean from watching the accused as well as the judge who decides their punishments. The DVD is a solid presentation of the film with decent extras.
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