The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - <i>WITNESSES (SEASON ONE)</i> | The Movie Waffler


French crime drama, coming to Blu-Ray and DVD October 5th from Arrow Films.

Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

"A Nordic Noir by numbers attempt to capitalise on the current fashion for slow burning, good looking crime dramas, Witnesses forgets the crucial ingredient which its predecessors within the genre were sure to build their drama upon; the stakes."

Is it possible to determine clues about a country’s zeitgeist from the crime drama it produces? The U.S. has gritty shows like The Wire and True Detective, multi layered tragedies that focus on corrupt institutions and the criminal glamours of money and sex, while the U.K. favours the likes of Broadchurch and Scott and Bailey, parochial dramas that take direct threats to the family and home as their grist, and then there’s the Scandinavian likes of The Killing or The Bridge, slow thawing mysteries that locate their grisly crimes within the dense history and hostility seeped within their deeply cinematic landscapes. It is the latter sort of crime drama that Witnesses takes as its model, transplanting the ominous clouds, sensible winter wear and gruesome mien of Nordic Noir to Northern France, where the plot sees the bodies of murder victims exhumed and arranged in mocking tableaux. Retired chief-of-police, the mysterious Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte), seems to have links to the victims. Can his team, consisting of detectives Justin (Jan Hammenecker) and Sandra (Marie Dompnier) weather the ponderous pace and brooding atmosphere of this Normandy-Noir, resolving the gravely prepared puzzle?
I’ll give Witnesses this much, it opens with a bang; the already disturbing concept of corpses being robbed and subsequently organised about show homes (sitting at tables, lounging on the sofa) is given a foetid realisation with insidious cameras and flat, cruel lighting, and an intriguing thematic promise of an exploration into a rancid human psyche. It’s a shame then that what follows is such a gémissement, with the potentially rich high concept of the desecrations and what they could mean all too soon petering out into a Nordic Noir by numbers attempt to capitalise on the current fashion for slow burning, good looking crime dramas. While Witnesses gets the grue correct, the wardrobe right (lead Dompnier swaps Sarah Lund’s sweater for an ever present scarf), and apes the shadowy cinematography with quality in abundance, it forgets the crucial ingredient which its predecessors within the genre were sure to build their drama upon; the stakes. Witnesses’ arranged murder victims are previously unrelated; the crime is in the exhumation, and the suggestion that the disinterment is being performed to wind up Maisonneuve. So, for most of the show’s running time, the gendarmes are basically looking for a sick performance artist - big deal. Maisonneuve (a liposucted Paul Hollywood-alike) has such a dodgy air, and is so smugly reticent, that it’s difficult to give a merde either way as to what happens to him. And when the heat does gradually turn up, it’s the police the antagonists exclusively target, robbing Witnesses of the innocents-in-potential-danger urgency that gave The Killing its addictive vitality.
Doing some of my own detective work, I enacted a hashtag straw poll to see what twitter thought of Witnesses. The tweeps seem to like it, half of them citing the words ‘scandinoir’ within their 140 character praise. Well, yes. If you’re after the look of that type of drama, Witnesses delivers, but is that the most people require from their viewing? To fulfil a Pavlovian response to shadowy lighting and pompous gazes into the middle distance, in a similarly indiscriminate manner to the way in which pre-schoolers gape at the bright colours and loud melodies of kid’s programmes? Watching Witnesses as a screener binge, its thrall to convention becomes woefully apparent, as does its structural issues; after a preceding 50 or so minutes of plodding plot, the last few moments of each episode suddenly ratchet up into deadly cliff hangers that involve guns or car chases, the tension of which is entirely dissipated by the time the next episode’s enigmatic title sequence has finished, where we usually discover our characters weren’t in that much danger after all. And even the pseudo-dreamlike title sequence is disingenuous; as trip-hop swells on the soundtrack, Sandra slowly wanders across a beach towards a hut, revealing within the carefully crafted, tastefully lit edifice of the shelter a wolf, who precedes to knowingly snarl at the detective. This makes no sense - it is Maisonneuve whose past is up for confrontation, not Sandra’s! Don’t be fooled by the ostensible quality (or the exotic subtitles) of this show - there is no wild, animal energy at the heart of Witnesses, just an empty space.
However, the other half of the twitter poll rightly championed Marie Dompnier as a reason for watching Witnesses, both for her performance and her beauty (it is twitter, after all). No argument with this paradigm - Dompnier is tremendous, and makes the tedium of Witnesses not only bearable but watchable, simply by virtue of her eminent star quality. There is a (ultimately pointless) sub plot concerning Sandra’s fella perhaps having an affair (come on, you didn’t think a strong female lead would get away without being somehow still defined as a family woman, did you?), which I found more compelling than the main narrative, because at least there seemed to be a recognisable tension involved in Sandra’s checking of messages and discovery of lipsticks beneath car seats, the conflicting emotions playing across her incredible face giving Witnesses an emotional veracity which is otherwise absent.
Before the inevitable defrost of this subgenre, fans of Nordic Noir will apparently find something in Witnesses to chill their bones. In the meantime, those looking for authentic, exciting French crime drama could do far worse than the cosmopolitan urban intensity of Braquo or Spiral, shows that embed their drama within a specifically French culture and mise-en-scene. And, more importantly, actually fulfil their promise to entertain their audiences.