(Original Title: 38 Témoins)
The thought that each and every one of us is essentially alone in this world, becomes clearer and scarier than we could ever handle in 38 Témoins. This is an incredible film, powerful, eye-opening, provoking, revealing and brutally honest, but for exactly the same reasons, it’s also terrifying, heartbreaking and extremely difficult to watch. Its qualities are its flaws, and the reasons for loving it coincide with those for hating it.
A woman is stabbed to death outside her building and found by the police in the middle of the night, lying on the pavement. Investigation begins and all the neighbours are brought into question, but everyone claims to have seen or heard nothing. As more and more is revealed, one after the other the people living in the neighbourhood are forced to admit to have witnessed the whole thing, to have heard the screams and to have decided to do nothing about it. In fact, they confess not only having not helped and stopped what was happening, but having also preferred to pretend that nothing had happened, having chosen to go back to their normal lives and try to forget all about the incident.
There are parts in the film where the characters’ detachment, distance, indifference, fear and shame get to such extremes, that some humour is to be found. Indeed very dark comedy is traced in those few parts, but still, it shows us once again that human nature is at times –and definitely in 38 Témoins – so flawed, so damaged and hopeless, that it can really makes one laugh, cringe and shake his head. And above all, it always makes for a good story. No matter how well we know it, how long we’ve been acting according it or have been claiming to hate it, still, it never ceases to impress us.
Writer-director Lucas Belvaux, puts together a very compelling script based on the intelligent novel by Didier Decoin, Est-ce Ainsi que les Femmes Meurent?, and delivers a highly original whodunit, which doesn’t try to identify the killer, but considers all those who watched, heard, and didn’t act, just as violent criminals as the person stabbing the young woman. 38 Témoins poses a very interesting question: if everyone is alone in life and death, then why do we even bother forming societies, living in blocks of flats or pretending we care about one another, by placing flowers on each other’s grave and lighting a candle? Is there any morality in society or does it all just serve to save space?
The story is mainly told from Pierre’s side, the merchant navy captain who first breaks his silence and admits to have heard everything but to have preferred to keep quiet and claim he was at work when it all happened. Pierre is played by Yvan Attal, who offers a quiet, controlled, almost passive performance that goes a long way. The less Attal says, the more we know, and the slower his moves are, the more we’re able to feel his shame and regret. Next to him stand another 37 confused, shocked, scared and unable-to-act witnesses, of whom the audience mainly gets to know Louise (Sophie Quinton), Pierre’s fiancé. Although slightly unrealistic how few words these two exchange despite being a couple, there’s no denying that the lack of communication within the couple, very much suits the overall theme and tone of the film as well as gets its point across very effectively.
Lucas Belvaux’s 38 Témoins is very French — slow and quiet; in fact, so quiet that if it weren’t for the young woman’s screams and cries for help, one would barely hear it. At the same time, the viewer cannot take his eyes off the screen for a second. The premise is gripping to such an extent, that no matter how slow everything is moving, the heavy realisations and constant looking-at-ourselves-in-the-mirror keeps us awake, absorbed and very interested to find out whether there’s an answer, a way out of out own nature. A resolution.