Friday 6 October 2017

So Help Me God (Jean Libon / Yves Hinant, 2017)

So Help Me God, which screens at the London Film Festival on the 8th and 10th of October, may as well be called Strip-Tease: The Movie, given how it’s indebted to, and so closely aligned with, the successful and groudbreaking TV show that gradually peeled back the layers on its subjects.  On first impressions, it does seem rather strange that the film isn’t explicitly associated with a brand that goes all the way back to the mid-1980s; while Strip-Tease may not be particularly well-known overseas, throwing the show’s name somewhere in with the original title (Ni juge, ni soumise) would no doubt make it an easier sell in the domestic market.   Directed by Strip-Tease’s co-creator Jean Libon alongside Yves Hinant, So Help Me God employs the show’s core approach (no narration, no interviews, no captions) to come up with a feature-length portrait of judge Anne Gruwez. 

So, why should Gruwez be afforded significantly more time than Strip-Tease’s usual subjects?  Well, a fair chunk of the duration is spent with the camera pointed at the other side of Gruwez’s desk, where there’s a range of people who, to varying extents, have fallen foul of the law; it’s not as if the entire running time is spent fixed on the magistrate.  Libon and Hinant's unblinking gaze on these individuals forces us to evaluate the veracity of their claims - which makes the ni juge part of the original title seem rather ironic.   But the star of the show is Gruwez, a stern, unflappable and, it must be said, not particularly likeable presence, but there’s something fascinating about watching her interact with those who come before her. 

The real jaw-dropping aspect of the film - which doesn’t dissipate as the film progresses - is that we’re privy to these incredibly sensitive legal conversations; you’ll find it very hard to believe that this isn’t some elaborate mockumentary.  The magistrate, who lives with her pet rat and pootles around in her old Citroën 2CV, is the sort of eccentric who is infinitely more likely to be written than found, and this one of the film’s major selling points.  Many will leave the cinema assuming they’ve just seen a piece of fiction; a scene where a suspect is exhumed so a bone sample can be taken is so surreally, nightmarishly over the top, it'll almost certainly be the point where some viewers will feel that this has to be staged.  Needless to say, it isn’t, nor is it the most disturbing episode in the film, which arrives a bit later on and involves a young woman and a suitcase; in that case, the perpetrator makes no effort to deny what they've done.  Such candour would be welcomed if it wasn't so chilling.

Brilliantly edited - presumably endless footage was filmed before it was pared down - and with a purposeful pace, So Help Me God’s place on the big screen may be more down to its running time as opposed to any inherent cinematic qualities, but it’s a clever and thoughtful work that deserves as wide an audience as possible.  Come to think of it, perhaps Strip-Tease is missing from the title as this film does not achieve the TV show’s usual goal, as the somewhat inscrutable Gruwez keeps a very tight lid on her inner self - but in any case, it's her professional life that will keep you engrossed from beginning to end.

Darren Arnold

Image: SSIFF