A courtroom drama in which the trial could hardly be further from the point, Christian Vincent’s “Courted” is finally an amiably dawdling tease as to what said point might actually be. Focusing instead on the ambiguously mutual attraction between between a crusty criminal court judge (Fabrice Luchini) and the juror (Sidse Babett Knudsen) with whom he has a heartache-inducing history, Vincent’s calm, almost strenuously low-key film never gathers enough emotional momentum to become a fully dimensional romance — which might be its poignant intention. Mellow, reservedly droll and seemingly on the same slackening painkillers as its flu-afflicted protagonist, “Courted” most notably leaves plenty of thespian elbow room for its two ever-watchable leads, whose respective French and Scandi fanbases should ensure decent European returns.
“Here comes Racine, like an icy wind,” mutters a colleague as Luchini’s dour arbiter of justice, Xavier Racine, huffs into the building, his usual prickliness amplified tenfold by a congested case of la grippe. A big cold fish in the relatively small pond of provincial commune Saint-Omer, he has a reputation for disproportionately harsh sentencing and snippy interpersonal skills — with his soon-to-be ex-wife among those who would testify to the latter. The pic’s French title, “L’hermine,” refers to the antiquated ermine cloak he still wears to court; it’s as convenient a symbol as any of his superciliousness, though he later admits to wearing it only out of sartorial cluelessness.
Conventional romantic comedy logic would dictate that such a character has a significant tenderizing of heart in his near future, which is partially the case here: Over the course of the film’s distractedly dramatized court case, Racine won’t be internally flooded with the milk of human kindness, but the sadness behind his severity comes to the fore in private. The temperature of proceedings is brisker here than it was in Vincent’s last theatrical feature, 2012’s fluffy, healthily distributed culinary comedy “Haute Cuisine” — though it’s still pretty breezy stuff, arguably not done huge favors by a Competition slot in Venice.
Somewhat perversely, behind Racine’s lovelorn interior paralysis, a human drama with far higher stakes rages in the background: The disaffected judge presides over the trial of Martial (Victor Pontecorvo) a thuggish, uncooperative man accused of kicking his infant daughter to death. It’s a daringly heavy storyline to relegate to incidental, uncertainty-ridden subplot status, though that presumably hasn’t escaped Vincent’s notice. The proportional disconnect between the consequentiality of this tragic story and its casual presence in the narrative appears to reflect Racine’s own solipsism, as his required professional impartiality appears to have morphed into a deeper detachment from the outside world.
He is further drawn from the serious matter at hand when the jury is picked on the first day, with anaesthesiologist and single mother Ditte Lorenson-Cotelet (Knudsen) among those randomly tapped for duty. Racine recognizes her immediately as the woman with whom he fell profoundly in love with during a period of hospitalization six years prior. She remembers him too, though it’s not immediately clear whether they regard each other with equal affection. After he invites her out for coffee during a break in the trial — a fairly drastic breach of protocol, one would think, for such a buttoned-up man of the law — the past emerges in coy recollections which, rather like the courtroom testimonies he parses on a daily basis, don’t always tell quite the same story. Either way, the story’s a small one, chiefly marked by opportunities missed, and its unraveling isn’t quite compelling enough on its own to sustain this short, insouciantly paced feature.
It’s the actors, then, who come to the rescue, scratching human texture into this anecdotal tale without appearing to break a sweat. Luchini scarcely needs more practice playing wearily uptight men befuddled by lives not their own, but it’s a character type he’s honed to melancholic comic perfection. His established array of priceless reaction shots gets a good workout here, but not at the expense of expressing Racine’s sincere sense of social alienation and ingrained dismay. He has a crackling foil in Knudsen, a wonderful actress here permitted a gentler, more receptive side to the brittle persona she wielded to such intense effect in “The Duke of Burgundy” and TV’s “Borgen.” She doesn’t skimp, however, on the character’s grave, life-molded intelligence.
Tech elements are unvarnished but not unconsidered — Vincent and his collaborators are sufficiently sensitive to rhythmic and compositional balance to prevent the material from seeming overly televisual. Laurent Dailland’s dove-toned widescreen lensing elegantly tightens focus during more intimate exchanges, while allowing Racine’s perspective to hold court — so to speak — over a more expansive spread of the frame in the trial sequences. Otherwise light on music, the pic makes repeated use of French chanteuse Claire Denamur’s acoustic ballad “Dreamers.” It’s a pretty selection the first time, though “Courted” needn’t be quite so emphatic in its wistfulness.