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Samuel Tilman on ‘The Benefit of the Doubt,’ Trial by Intuition, Belgium Cinema

Toplining Dardennes star Fabrizio Rongione, Tilman’s first feature makes its market debut at the 2018 UniFrance Rendez-Vous

PARIS — Played by the Dardenne brothers regular Fabrizio Rongione(“Two Nights, One Day,” “Lorna’s Silence”), David, a school teacher, is holidaying in the Vosges hills with his wife, two young children, and their friends, a close-knit gaggle of school teachers. One night he goes jogging along the forest paths, and when he stops to gain breath, chats to a woman in a car, who seems lost.

The next morning, she is found murdered. David becomes the prime suspect in a murder case which will wreak his marriage and many friendships.

Sold by Be For Films, tightly written and carefully controlling point of view, “The Benefit of the Doubt” seems utterly opportune, chronicling how someone is tried and convicted without due process by both the media and his associates. It also marks the fiction feature debut of Belgium’s Samuel Tilman, a co-writer and producer of Joachim Lafosse’s second movie, “Ca rend hereux,” and a distinguished producer of documentaries and Rongione one-man shows. It is a film which makes the rarity of Belgian – and indeed French – film noir – seem all the more strange. The word after all is a French expression. Variety talked to Tilman in the run-up to the UniFrance Rendez-Vous in Paris, where it will make its market debut. “The Benefit of the Doubt” has been sold to Axia Films in Canada. O’Brother will open the film on March 7.  France and Switzerland will follow.

Until the film’s final scene, the film could have titled “The Curse of the Doubt.” The police investigation into David exposes another side to his life that makes some of his friends uncertain as to his innocence. And his status even as just a suspect makes some of his fellow teachers want to distance themselves from him. In other words, he already suffers some of the stigma of guilt, before his guilt is proven. Could you comment?

My intention throughout the film was always to focus on doubt. As a spectator, you receive information about the enquiry and David’s possible guilt through what his friends and family learn, you are never privy, for instance, to what the police know. Right up to the final scene there is no material evidence proving David’s guilt. So the viewers have only their own intuition to follow, their own interpretation of David’s actions and attitudes. Just like David’s friends and relatives, each viewer progressively makes up his or her own mind. I believe that when they have no objective elements to go on, people tend to shift to moral elements instead: does David (with his grey areas) “fit” the guilty profile?

The movie explores both the irrationality and rationality of doubt. Many of his friends’ thinking is that if David lied about one part of his life, he could lie about another, when the rational question would be whether a man capable of committing certain acts – proven – would be capable of murder. And the answer to that is that there is no connection at all.

That’s exactly the point: Where does the boundary lie between moral failure (lying) and monstrosity (murder)? If a man is fallible, does that make him a potential murderer? What could tip the scales? It is this fragile balance that I explore throughout the film.

The rationality of doubt: The people who most doubt David are those who may feel the largest grievance against him: the wife of the best friend he has lead astray; the fellow teacher who may feel challenged by David’s natural authority among his colleagues. Could you comment? 

I completely agree. What is at stake in this film is not the enquiry into David’s guilt but rather how a sense of balance gets disrupted: a family is shattered, friendships are destroyed…  The characters who are harshest towards David are also those who have personal grievances against him. The doubt surrounding David that spreads through the group of friends sweeps aside all the characters’ precarious comfort and their moral convictions. By speaking about David and the enquiry, the characters are in fact speaking about themselves. And in doing so, revealing their own grey areas.

The movie’s tension is wracked up, I think, by a narrative which works on three levels: the procedural investigation climaxing in a trial; David’s account of what happened that night; and bit-by-bit revelation of the truth. Was balancing the three one of the main challenges of the film?

That was a crucial point right from the start, in the writing phase. Elements are revealed progressively from beginning to end, and always from the perspective of David’s friends. I wanted each element to offer both an incriminating and exonerating interpretation, and for each new clue to subtly impact the characters’ behavior. And through the characters to impact the viewers who identify with them: with David’s wife, his best friend, his colleagues… It is this perpetual uncertainty that generates tension throughout the film. Especially when David’s justifications and innocence claims get more and more forceful as the noose tightens.

Lead Fabrizio Rongione has of course been one of your closest collaborators for years. How did you compose the character and the representation of the character together?

Fabrizio is known for his work with the Dardenne brothers, but few people are aware that he started his career on stage, doing stand-up in Belgium when he was twenty. I’ve known him since then and had complete confidence in his ability to portray a likeable family man while at the same time being able to project a darker side which could shed doubt on his character. Our work together was centered on sobriety: Being as simple as possible, never character-acting. He must never “be” unsettling: Viewers are unsettled by whatever they project onto this “normal” character. My premise was that when you have to defend yourself you always seem guilty: You do nothing, you are suspicious; you fight, you’re also suspicious. In both cases you could be hiding something.

As your fiction feature debut, what were your main guidelines when directing “The Benefit of Doubt”?

I wanted to make a character-driven film, where viewers may feel like they too belong to the group of friends and are observing David, notably through the use of close-ups and hand-held camera work. This projection may contribute to creating confusion. In contrast, the flashback scenes are presented as wide shots using camera stands, with characters seemingly lost in the surrounding natural environment. I also worked a lot with the actors themselves: During group rehearsals and later on set by experimenting with intentions. We would work with a governing hypothesis (anger, fear, detachment etc.) and then try again with something completely opposite. I knew that would help me with the editing when the time came to piece the story together. I often ended up choosing takes that were not necessarily those that seemed likely on set. The story unfolds not only through what characters state but also through what remains unsaid.

In TV series, Belgium has seen a flowering of dark crime rural-set thrillers, to the extent that I’ve even talked about Belgian Noir. At least one, “The Break,” was also set in wild-ish hills, though the Ardennes, I think. Why in contrast are there relatively few films noir in Belgium, as indeed in France?

This is maybe due for a change, notably thanks to TV series. In Belgium today, there is a greater willingness to explore all kinds and genres of films, both in the French and Flemish-speaking parts of the country. Belgian cinema is diversifying for the best in a new unabashed manner.

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