Some foreign-language films arrive on the festival circuit so primed and ready for remake treatment that you practically expect a teaser trailer in the closing credits. Such was the case with last year’s “The Accused (Acusada),” an engrossing Argentine courtroom drama just classy enough to secure a Venice competition berth, and just lurid enough to get populist-minded producers twitching. Sure enough, less than a year after Gonzalo Tobal’s film premiered on the Lido, along comes a new, relocated version: The surprise, however, is that France has beaten Hollywood to the punch. Adapted and directed with taste and tact by Stéphane Demoustier, “The Girl With a Bracelet” retains many of the merits of its source, similarly building an old-fashioned did-she-or-didn’t-she mystery — revolving around a teenage girl on trial for murdering her best friend — into a more probing, ambiguity-laced psychological profile.
In certain respects, Demoustier’s crisply shot, precisely acted remake even improves on the original, exerting cooler, tighter tonal control over a potentially hot-headed procedural, and reworking some unwieldy plot points to more subtle, elegant effect. An eccentric doozy of a twist, meanwhile, has been shed, which proves a mixed blessing: What Demoustier’s version gains in credible restraint it loses in sheer talking-point moxie, as the final act here trails off into slightly over-studied ambivalence. A fine cast of Gallic stalwarts — all on form, though ceding the glory to a terse, riveting turn from promising first-timer Melissa Guers in the title role — enhances the domestic marketability of this Locarno premiere, which could wind up travelling a bit more widely in Europe than its predecessor.
Indeed, “The Girl With a Bracelet” will play best to audiences unfamiliar with “The Accused” — not due to any qualitative difference between the two, but because its hooky story can’t help but lose some impact when told twice in such swift succession. The telling is straightforwardly linear, but the audience isn’t spoonfed, as Demoustier takes his time in establishing the exact details of what has happened. A stylish, literally muted credit sequence sees 16-year-old Lise arrested by police on an idyllic beach as her parents look on, all dialogue swallowed by Carla Pallone’s expressive synths-and-strings score. Jumping forward two years, she’s more or less a prisoner in her parents’ sleekly modern Nantes home, as she calmly, even impassively, prepares for an impending trial: While her father Bruno (Roschdy Zem) anxiously monitors her like a hawk, her surgeon mother Celine (Chiara Mastroianni) has more or less checked out, burying herself in work at the hospital and refusing to be present in court.
It’s only once we enter the trial, via the stricken, exhausted testimony of the victim’s mother, that we learn the charges: Lise’s best friend Flora was brutally and fatally stabbed multiple times the morning after the girls had a sleepover, dying mere minutes after the accused claims to have left her house. A two-year investigation has turned up no other suspects, as well as a semblance of a motive for Lise. The murder took place not long after the girls fought over an increasingly familiar adolescent crisis of the social-media generation: After recording Lise performing oral sex on a mutual friend, Flora posted the video online. Beyond a possibly hyperbolic death threat made by Lise in the immediate fallout, other evidence remains circumstantial; the dogged prosecutor (Anaïs Demoustier, the helmer’s sister) thus leads with damning assertions as to Lise’s moral character, with the accused’s every facial or verbal reaction (or lack thereof) subject to close, cruel scrutiny.
For while Lise maintains her innocence, she’s not the weepy, vulnerable ball of nerves that society prefers to see from its female innocents. Chilly and clammed-up in court, often falling into hostile silence when questioned, she steps right into the rhetorical traps laid for her by the prosecution; at home, she’s equally withdrawn and unreadable, brightening only in fleeting interactions with her younger brother, who hardly understands the gravity of the situation. (“If you go to prison, can I have your room?”) Demoustier’s taut script takes no clear position on what its protagonist did or didn’t do, while Guers’ superb lead performance holds both our sympathy and our uncertainty, occasionally giving away flashes of the effort Lise puts into maintaining her glassy front, and the searing grief (or regret) behind it. Once Celine finally, reluctantly takes the stand — in a scene of stoic, softly exposed inner turmoil, beautifully played by Mastroianni — we see where Lise gets her facade from.
Unlike the original, Demoustier’s quieter film steers clear of any media circus surrounding the salacious story, keeping the trial rigorously court-based, while interpreting broader human nature and public opinion from the responses of those directly involved. What is the “appropriate” way to act when accused of killing a friend, and why do we have such clear expectations of those in such an unimaginable situation? Titled for the electronic tracking device clamped to Lise’s ankle, which comes to accumulate its own symbolic weight, “The Girl With a Bracelet” comments intelligently on our culture’s propensity to sex-shame and emotionally instruct young women in particular — points which stand regardless of whether shedunnit or not.