In most whodunits, the script focuses our attention on the victim, the suspect, and a smattering of red herrings. Conviction, which is based on a true story, instead loosely follows the example of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). Morally opaque, Jacques Viguier (Laurent Lucas) has already been acquitted of murdering his wife Suzy. But an appeals court tries him again. This time around, hundreds of recorded telephone calls are admitted as evidence, and it’s up to Nora (Marina Foïs) to search for helpful clues as she sorts through them.
Throughout the film, French director Antoine Raimbault repeatedly zooms in on Nora’s face. In one Hitchcockian scene, he holds the camera tightly on her eyes to ramp up the tension. Foïs’ expressions move from consternation and confusion to frustration and suppressed rage. She has the range of Debra Winger and bears a striking resemblance to her in this role. With Foïs as the emotional center of the film, along with a series of fast-paced edits, Raimbault avoids drifting into the campiness of a TV series like Bravo’s Dear John.
At the beginning of the Conviction, it’s unclear what’s motivating Nora. Why does she step in to find a new defense attorney for Viguier? She’s not related to or in love with him. Nora’s a single mother, with a lover of her own, who also works as a chef. The first connection we see is that she’s hired Viguier’s daughter to tutor her son. When she approaches the famed, fearsome lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti (Olivier Gourmet), Nora tells him that the Viguier family’s story has deeply affected her. Seeing — from a distance — that he’s unable to defend himself, Nora takes up his cause.
Despite having an overburdened practice, Dupond-Moretti decides to take the case. He’s impressed by Nora’s persistence and by her belief in Viguier’s innocence. Viguier himself remains nearly inarticulate throughout the film. Lucas portrays the accused as a man who’s still in shock ten years after his wife’s death. Raimbault deliberately declines to give him a monologue. The camera reads his expressions with indifference. In this story, he and his late wife are voids. Suzy doesn’t even show up in a flashback.
The director gives the audience as much information as the jury has. Whether you project guilt or innocence onto his glum expression (Lucas uses his mouth to express dissatisfaction the way that Martin Landau did), it feels like your own judgment, unrelated to reason or the facts of the case. We know that Suzy’s body has never been found. But we also know that she was with her smarmy boyfriend, Olivier (Philippe Uchan), the night she disappeared.
Nora has no background as a legal assistant but she wrote a comprehensive summary of the first trial for Dupond-Moretti. Since nobody else is as familiar with the case as she is, he asks her to listen to the vast archive of tapped telephone calls that Olivier made following Suzy’s disappearance. Nothing sounds duller than watching someone listen to hours of audio recordings. But the filmmaker creates a sense of urgency with neo-noir camera angles, shadowy scenes at night, the trial’s impending deadlines, Nora’s reactions to what she hears and Dupond-Moretti’s varying responses to her discoveries.
The script also weaves in the unravelling of her personal life. What starts as a side project for Nora, slowly devolves into an obsession that consumes her. In an endnote, we learn that Nora isn’t actually based on a real person in Viguier’s circle of friends or acquaintances. It’s Foïs’ imagination that brings her to life. She creates, at the same time, a specific character with believable flaws and an Everywoman who accompanies the audience in her pursuit of the truth.
Eventually though, Dupond-Moretti confronts Nora with the downside of her obsession. During his court defense of Viguier, he reminds the judges and the jury of the way in which the press portrayed his client. The initial news stories ran sensational headlines and fed the public’s desire for scandal. Viguier, the man, got swallowed up and lost in other people’s perceptions of him. There were premature opinions stating that he didn’t appear contrite enough. Or that he simply had the appearance of a guilty man.
With Conviction, Raimbault revitalizes a tired genre, the courtroom drama. He expands Nora’s obsession so that it resonates well beyond the personal. She’s filling up the empty spaces in her soul the same way an audience does. We put our lives on hold, ignoring bills, chores and our loved ones while binge-watching the latest show. Here, Nora binge-watches Viguier’s life on trial. It’s a murder mystery that doesn’t directly affect her life. The cause is an escape clause that gives her a sense of purpose and temporarily relieves the tedium of her ordinary routines. It’s Dupond-Moretti who pointedly observes that she’s chasing justice for a man she doesn’t really know.
Conviction is now playing virtually via the Smith Rafael Film Center.