TELEVISION / Playing to an audience of twelve: Thomas Sutcliffe watches love go on trial in True Stories

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The Independent Culture
GROUP 4, currently providing every cartoonist in the land with a welcome boost to their earnings, has become something of a byword for relaxed security in recent weeks. But judging from 'Lovers on Trial', a prize-winning Belgian film shown in the True Stories strand, they still have a few lessons in laxity to learn from their continental counterparts. Granted extraordinary access for his documentary film about the murder of a husband by his wife and her lover, the director Manu Bonmarriage (I'm not making it up) produced a film which frequently made you wonder whether the Belgian Prison Service shouldn't get a co-producer's credit.

The film covered the trial of Christian Fernandez and Marie-Louise Gosset for the murder of Gosset's common-law husband, Dominique. There was little doubt that Fernandez had been involved (though he now protests his innocence), either pulling the trigger himself or persuading his accomplices to do it for him. The larger question, one on which his own sentence and Marie-Louise's liberty depended, was whether she had knowingly assisted in the crime by luring her husband to the spot with a false story about a second-hand Mercedes being for sale.

Christian Fernandez was still in love and initially determined to protect his mistress and the friend who helped him in the murder, a loyalty that was doggedly chipped away at by his lawyers. Marie-Louise appeared less noble in her defence, insisting that she had known nothing of the plan, an assertion plainly contradicted by some of the evidence.

This wasn't really a film about forensic logic though - more about the power of love and the performance of justice, with a particular stress on that word's theatrical connotations. Between courtroom appearances and conversations with their lawyers both Marie-Louise and Christian rehearsed their accounts, obliging the cameras with almost professional ease. Christian was seen at one point clutching photographs of his lover and blinking slowly, as if to clear his vision, a scene which fitted so neatly with the preceding actuality that you wondered how many takes had been required. At various points the two lovers talked to each other across the narrow courtyard of the prison where they were being held and you asked yourself whether this convenient proximity was coincidental or constructed.

But whatever your doubts the film made for absolutely compulsive viewing as the confidence and loyalties of the leading players shifted and changed. From the cynicism of the lawyers ('The jury needs a hope to cling to, something classic,' said Christian's lawyer, persuading him to give the impression that he would return to his wife rather than divorce her, as he intended) to the malleable sincerity of Marie-Louise (the director pointedly included several scenes in which she rubbed dirt from her hands like a latterday Lady Macbeth) it was clear that truth had gone over the wall some time ago.

In the end the jury decided that all four of the accused were guilty. The longest sentence was reserved for Marie-Rose, successfully depicted by Christian's operatic advocates as a manipulator, a mante religieuse (praying mantis). The viewer's verdict was likely to have been more accurately represented by Christian's remark in the middle of the trial: 'No one will know the truth.'

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