There’s a telling scene toward the end of Yvan Attal’s intense and rather didactic courtroom drama The Accusation (Les Choses humaines), which concerns an alleged rape and the heavy repercussions it wreaks on two families caught up in the aftermath.
The accused’s father, an aging TV journalist and serial womanizer (played by Pierre Arditi, who starred in several late films by Alain Resnais) vehemently comes to his son’s defense at the trial, making a blustering speech about how “20 minutes of action” shouldn’t transform a promising young man’s life. He then adds that there’s often a “gray area” when it comes to questions of consent in sexual relations.
Well performed and long-winded.
If the first statement causes a scandal, pitting the libidinous old boomer against a new generation of French women who refuse to accept misogyny as a regular part of life, the second quote is closer to what Attal really seems to be getting at in his movie: how, at a time when some of us have a tendency to rush to judgment in sexual assault cases, trying the suspects in public before they are ever tried in court, the truth may be harder to ascertain, especially when two individuals have different impressions of the same experience. In such cases, the truth may be unknowable — or rather the truth depends entirely on who’s truth you’re asking for: his or hers.
This ambiguous conclusion, which is at the heart of The Accusation, may feel like a cop-out for those looking for clear-cut answers of right or wrong, guilty or innocent. But you need go no further than the title of the prizewinning novel by Karine Tuil that Attal and co-writer Yaël Langmann adapted their script from. The book is called Les Choses humaines in French and translates to “human affairs” or “human things.” In other words, humans are imperfect creatures capable of both good and bad things, sometimes in the very same act, and we should try our best to understand them. Such is the message Attal passes on, and sometimes hammers home with all the subtlety of a blacksmith, during this well-performed, if overstretched, two-plus-hour saga.
In the first half of his film, the director follows the alleged rapist and victim separately, revealing how different their lives are on an emotional and material level. The boy, Alex (Ben Attal, son of the director and co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg), is a 22-year-old Stanford student who’s back in Paris to attend the Legion of Honour ceremony of his famous dad, Jean (Arditi). When he arrives, there’s nobody waiting at home but the maid — his father’s too busy at work flirting with a young intern, Quitterie (Camille Razat, from Emily in Paris), while Alex’s feminist mother, Claire (Gainsbourg), is on the radio debating a rape case that involves illegal immigrants.
We soon find out that Alex’s parents have recently separated, with Claire now dating a modest literature professor, Adam (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose 17-year-old daughter, Mila (the excellent Suzanne Jouannet), immediately takes a liking to her potential stepbrother. After they all have dinner in Adam’s cramped but homey apartment, Alex and Mila head out to a party with the former’s buddies from high school, all rich kids like himself. It’s only a certain time later that we learn Mila has accused Alex of rape.
The news shatters both families, tearing Claire and Adam apart, pushing Jean into the arms of Quitterie (more on that later), and forcing Alex to get a lawyer (Benjamin Lavernhe) for what promises to be a highly media-hyped trial. Attal does a good job connecting all the characters and plot strands, of which there are enough to fill a miniseries — such as the similar-themed if more thriller-oriented Unbelievable — setting things up for a second half in which Alex takes the stand in a French cour d’assises, or criminal trial court.
It’s worth mentioning that Tuil’s best-selling book was inspired by the 2015 rape case of Stanford student Brock Turner. (The line “20 minutes of action” was something said by Turner’s father to protest his son’s potential sentence, which wound up being rather lenient.) Both the author in her novel, and Attal in his film, point out how pathetic such a defense is, revealing the deep traumas suffered by a victim like Mila, but also showing how Alex’s life is turned upside down, and then some, by an allegation he believes to be false.
The director spends a fair amount of time in that “gray area” where it’s hard to tell if we’re dealing with rape or with Alex’s somewhat transgressive ideas of sex, which are detailed during the trial and beforehand. Unlike the Turner case, which was about a college athlete taking horrible advantage of an intoxicated young woman, the one in The Accusation is far from a cut-and-dry case, involving such elements as the erotic writings of Georges Bataille and how the French word “salope” can be an insult or a turn-on, depending on the context.
There’s a bit too much detail at times, and even if such details are pivotal in a rape case, it’s probably not necessary for us to hear all of them. Nor is it necessary for us to witness 70-something Jean’s love affair with the 20-something Quitterie, including two frankly embarrassing sex scenes — one that has Arditi shouting “I’m getting hard now!” in a cry of victory before he takes Quitterie from behind in front of a mirror. Attal uses that storyline as a red herring at first, making us think that Jean may somehow be linked to the rape, but in the end that plot comes across as the shallow tale of an older man getting his rocks off.
The movie features a few other missteps, including flashbacks during the trial to the night of the alleged rape that are shot in shaky handheld video, like cellphone footage, and have all the verisimilitude of public service announcements. And then there are the courtroom scenes, which are suspenseful but also a little drawn out, with every character making a long, grandstanding speech either for or against the accused.
Attal, who’s a formidable actor himself (his Hollywood credits include Munich and Rush Hour 3), does a fine job with the ensemble cast. Both Attal fils and newcomer Jouannet offer solid turns layered with fragility, playing two promising kids whose lives are disrupted by a single night that will haunt them forever. And Kassovitz is especially memorable in a small but meaningful role as a father caught between his own family tragedy and his desire to build a new life with another woman.
Still, the film tends to overstay its welcome, mostly because Attal doesn’t know when to cut a scene short, or otherwise cut away, and let us think for ourselves. For a movie all about the ambiguity of human behavior and relations, there’s little that feels ambiguous in The Accusation, which keeps returning to the idea that the truth can be elusive when it comes to questions of sex and consent. It’s a point that Attal, in his determined and declamatory way, makes over and over again, reminding us that there’s only so much we can ever know. Well, to paraphrase Biggie Smalls: If we don’t know, now we know.