'38 Witnesses'

A melancholic, rather cold French-set adaptation of Didier Decoin's novel inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese.

The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese and the outcry when 38 witnesses failed to call the cops continue to resonate long after the crime was forgotten. Now Lucas Belvaux tackles the subject with this melancholic, rather cold French-set adaptation of Didier Decoin’s Genovese-inspired novel, concentrating on the inexplicable silence from neighbors who heard bloodcurdling screams and did nothing. Belvaux’s penchant for moral dilemmas sans pat psychological analysis makes subject and helmer a natural pair, though the pic’s gray airlessness proves ill suited to the situation and emotional attachment is minimal. A March home release could see modest biz.

Belvaux’s rep, thanks to his marvelous “Trilogy” and more recent “Rapt,” might translate into decent fest exposure, especially in French showcases, yet Stateside release will be hampered by the audience’s difficulty connecting with the characters. The problem is less the scattered stock figures (doggedly determined investigative reporter, stressed-out police inspector) than the probably unintentional distancing, which only shifts into something gut-wrenching in the last 10 minutes.

In the wee hours of the night, a 20-year-old woman is brutally stabbed to death in the hallway of her building in Le Havre. Police interview the neighbors, but they all say they didn’t hear anything, except one man who thought people were just being rowdy. Louise (Sophie Quinton) returns home from a business trip the next day, so she’s not much use to the cops or journalist Sylvie (Nicole Garcia), and Louise’s fiance, Pierre (Yvan Attal, “Rapt”), says he was working the late shift as a pilot in the port.

Pierre, uncommunicative at the best of times, is especially diffident, and then one night, when he thinks she’s asleep, he admits to Louise that he heard the victim’s unforgettable screams. Louise can’t understand how the man she loves could have been aware and done nothing; meanwhile, Pierre’s inescapable guilt finally brings him to the police and a confession, infuriating the neighbors who had hoped the case would fade away along with their secret shame.

“38 Witnesses” excels at capturing a sense of place: Belvaux spends a lot of time, none wasted, on positioning the murder and the various viewpoints that make the residents’ claims of ignorance a physical impossibility. The helmer likewise understands the peculiar nature of port cities, with leviathan container ships and busy docks that, especially at night, generate a disquieting air.

Yet even on this level he occasionally overplays his hand: A scene of Louise searching for Pierre in the port, replete with odd lights and large objects moving in disorienting ways, is just a standard-issue sequence tossed in to unnecessarily emphasize her unsettled state. Similarly, a mysterious man who stares at Pierre from a balcony across the way exists to creep out the viewer (and Pierre), but has no other function and is never explained. Is he even real, or a figment of a bad conscience?

Louise’s uncomplicated nature makes it difficult for Quinton to find the character underneath, and Garcia’s world-wise reporter feels like a stereotype familiar from countless smallscreen series. Visuals are a practically colorless affair, restricted to dull grays, blacks and browns occasionally offset by Sylvie’s almost flashy red car. Rather than giving the pic a distinctive look, the tonalities make everything just bland.

38 Witnesses

Belgium-France

Production

An Agat Films & Co., Artemis Prods. presentation of an Agat Films, Artemis Prods., France 3 Cinema, Herodiade, RTBF, Belgacom, Films Sous Influence production, in association with Cinemage 6, Soficinema 7, Cinemage 5, with the participation of Canal Plus, France Televisions, Cine Plus. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Patrick Sobelman, Patrick Quinet, Yvan Attal. Directed, written by Lucas Belvaux, adapted from the novel "Est-ce ainsi que les femmes meurent?" by Didier Decoin.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Pierric Gantelmi d'Ille; editor, Ludo Troch; music, Arne Van Dongen; production designer, Frederique Belvaux; costume designer, Nathalie Raoul; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Henri Morelle, Luc Thomas; assistant director, Brieuc Vanderswalm; casting, Okinawa Guerard. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Spectrum, opener), Jan. 25, 2012. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Yvan Attal, Sophie Quinton, Nicole Garcia, Francois Feroleto, Natacha Regnier, Patrick Descamps, Didier Sandre, Bernard Mazzinghi, Laurent Fernandez, Pierre Rochefort, Philippe Resimont, Sebastien Libessart, Dimitri Rataud, Vincent Le Bodo, Anne-Sophie Pauchet, Jean-Pierre Guiner, Laurent Manzoni, Corinne Belet, Rose Folloppe.

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