Tuesday 23 June 2020

Problem child: "The Girl with a Bracelet"

Nothing so decorous or flattering as that noted pearl earring, rather a location monitor slapped less than delicately around the ankle of a young woman under suspicion. From its opening tableau of police interrupting a family day out at the beach to drag 16-year-old Lise Bataille (Melissa Guers) away into custody for reasons unknown, Stéphane Demoustier's The Girl with a Bracelet delights in raising questions the courtroom drama at its centre takes a long, hard think about answering. What crime could a girl from such a conspicuously well-appointed household have committed? Why - when her case comes to trial two years after this prologue - do her parents (Roschdy Zem and Chiara Mastroianni) suddenly appear estranged? Why are a concerned group of citizens, paid interrogators, going to such great lengths to establish what went down in the course of a teenage sleepover? From the manner in which she stares down the uptight prosecutor (Anaïs Demoustier, the director's sister), we understand Lise herself will be providing no easy answers; while we wait for the relevant particulars of the case to be entered onto the record, the camera submits her to a level of scrutiny previously only experienced by the heroines of certain 1940s melodramas.

Does this problem child merit and sustain such scrutiny? It's true that Guers' mercurial performance stands as by far the film's strongest suit. Observed within the confines of her parents' home, her Lise could be any other, slightly sullen teenager; but lead her anywhere beyond the boundaries permitted by that bracelet - up into the dock, say - and she defaults to a dead-eyed, heavy-lidded stare that indicates something's seriously off with this girl. The viewer's task, over the course of these faintly tinny 95 minutes, is to judge whether that something is latent sociopathy or just mortified shame, for that element of melodrama is a remnant of the old Scarlet Letter plot, most recently worked out as comedy in 2010's Easy A. This case, it transpires, turns on the existence and circulation of that most 21st century of macguffins, a viral video clip. For a while - in what constitutes the film's most involving stretch - it looks as though Demoustier is attempting to cram into one courthouse some of the sprawling complication of last year's strong Australian series The Hunting, the better to observe what happens when adults try to regulate burgeoning teenage sexuality, when schoolyard crushes become a matter of law.

That's a noble aim, and it's possible to imagine The Girl with a Bracelet sparking bridging conversations in some forums between teens feeling their way out into adulthood and parents who never had to worry about their first fumblings finding their way onto Pornhub. Narratively and stylistically, however, Demoustier's film comes to feel a touch limited; it may just be more effective as a talking point than it is as drama. The Hunting pulled the adults into the mess their kids made, seeing it as a logical consequence of their failure to understand what their offspring were doing with the freedoms they had to fight for. Here, the same grown-ups are merely shuttled on and off as character witnesses; though Zem and Mastroianni make credible statements when called, there's never enough going on away from the courtroom for them to become active participants in the film. What that leaves us watching is basically an episode of Crown Court with sexy new subject matter and rather more money at its disposal. Inevitably, a lot comes to rest on the verdict, and whether the film will stump up the answers it's spent much of its running time withholding. No spoilers from me, save to say the final moments are less about the crime than court mechanics - precisely the film's least engaging aspect. It's disappointingly characteristic of Demoustier's direction after that intriguing start: he's too interested in what that bracelet represents, and not nearly interested enough in the girl wearing it.

The Girl with a Bracelet will be available to stream via Curzon from Friday.

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