The Philadelphia Film Festival, redubbed CineFest, is in full swing. Since my husband, The Gryphon, and I were away last weekend, we missed the first weekend. Usually, we don't catch any movies during the week, but I wanted to get a couple extras in, so I looked for ones that would fit my schedule. Yesterday, I saw Jury Duty (Le Septième juré), which was playing at The Prince at 4:45 p.m. I took the El downtown instead of driving, so I avoided the rush hour traffic. Since I got there early, I drank a coffee and worked on a poem in the lobby until it was time to get in line.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin in Jury Duty
In my seat, I took my notebook out to work on a book review for Wild Violet, but a woman in her 60s asked if she could sit next to me. "Sure," I told her, expecting that to be the end of the conversation. But she kept talking: about the films she'd seen so far, including one starring Jeff Daniels, and about how she was going to see the new Jeff Daniels play in New York. When I could tell there was no hope of getting anything done, I put the notebook away. We had a nice conversation. Turns out that she's a writer and a practicing lawyer. We exchanged business cards.
Jury Duty (Le Septième juré), is a French film where the French title means "The Seventh Juror." While it is a drama, there are also some elements of dark humor. A few people in the audience found it much funnier than others and were laughing out loud. Of course, they were also talking through the movie, so I guess they're just loud in general.
The movie follows Grégoire Duval (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a mild-mannered pharmacist who masks a darker side. At the beginning of the film, in a moment of opportunity, he assaults and then strangles a young woman. Ironically, he then gets selected to serve on the jury taxed with deciding the fate of the young Algerian accused of her murder.
The story takes place in the early Sixties at the end of the Algerian war, a time of political unrest. Algerians in France were engaged in terroristic acts against the government, and feeling ran high. Racist comments are often used against the suspect, who is several shades darker in complexion than the townspeople. Yet, he insists that he is innocent and, with his wounded look and large, sensitive eyes, only the hardhearted could fail to see his sincerity.
Grégoire is an interesting character. Far from a calculating murderer, he does regret his actions. More importantly, he feels terrible for the wrong accused young man and uses his position on the jury to strive for justice (that is, short of turning himself in).
This is a quiet, understated film, with important details introduced silently with a degree of subtlety. The pharmacist, while seemingly meek, harbors an inner rage. He has a passive-aggressive relationship with his wife and is having trouble connecting with his teenage son. Darroussin's performance is a highlight of the film: he humanizes the pharmacist, imbuing him with some sympathetic qualities. As viewers watch him tossing and turning in bed, or see a tear running down his face, it's easy to forget the sinister side that lurks underneath.
The film showcases how political forces can influence justice. The political powers of the village would like nothing more than for this young man to serve as an example to the Algerians they view as enemies in their midst.
While much of the film seems predictable, there are enough surprises to keep it interesting. The film is shot on location in a bucolic section of France, and care is taken to sets, costumes and cars to create a sense of the time period.
Ultimately, Jury Duty is a carefully-controlled film that does what it sets out to do. I'm not sure, however, how much I'll remember it in a few months. Still, it's worth seeing, especially because of its enduring messages which are, sadly, relevant today.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5 stars)
Justice isn't blind where politics is concerned.