Last Night's TV: An arresting story in any language
True Stories: A Small Town Murder, More 4; Horizon, BBC2
Wednesday 26 March 2008
One argument in favour of the CCTV cameras that are sprouting like mushrooms across the nation is that, for all their limitations, they are more or less objective witnesses. Human beings, on the other hand, are terrible witnesses, as anybody who has ever been in a courtroom during a criminal case can testify: they forget things, they mix up names, they get events in the wrong order, they make stuff up to sound more plausible or sober, and they construct elaborate fantasies to cover up things that nobody cares about, let alone the things that genuinely matter.
A Small Town Murder was a brilliant but dispiriting lesson in human unreliability. Mosco Boucault's True Stories film followed the work of police detectives in Roubaix in France, up by the Belgian border, a town of terraced houses and alleyways, visibly part of the European north that Jonathan Meades was banging on about a few weeks ago. It started out more or less conventionally, trailing the cops around as they went from house to house asking questions about a series of crimes: somebody had been stabbed in a row with a neighbour, a girl had disappeared, and an empty house had been gutted by arsonists. But about a quarter of an hour in, the film was derailed. A woman, Stephanie, was on the phone asking for protection. She and her friend Annie had been assaulted the previous week, and now someone was breaking a window downstairs, and they were frightened. Next, the camera showed images of an elderly woman lying dead on her bed. Then Stephanie was there in the flesh, explaining to a detective that it was Annie who had murdered the old lady, who was called Micheline, and showing off the swag that Annie had brought back from her house, including cleaning materials and cat food.
This turn of events seemed abrupt and enigmatic. We had met Stephanie and Annie a few minutes earlier in screen time as witnesses in the arson case. They lived opposite and they'd named names, but everyone they'd mentioned had turned up a cast-iron alibi (one was clocked in at work, another was in court in Lille), and the police had heard rumours that Annie and Stephanie were involved. That must have been a few weeks earlier – Annie's hair, which she kept cropped short, had grown out considerably – but the time-scheme remained fuzzy. The hectic pace was accelerated by French police practices. None of your cautions – or indeed your caution – here, and no lawyers, suspects were set down in a room together and encouraged to hector and play the blame game, and police yelled and threatened (but they never retreated into bureaucratic jargon, and always remained human). The contradictions piled up like leaves on Vallombrosa.
Pretty soon, Annie abandoned her denials, and between the two of them, a story came out. They had gone into Micheline's house to steal money, had taken her TV, and had then gone upstairs to search for money. When Micheline woke up, they dosed her with the anti-psychotic medication they found in her cupboard, and when she was unconscious, they strangled her. Which, if either of them, was more guilty, was hard to say. Stephanie seemed to be in charge (because she was beautiful, and because Annie was in love with her), but maybe Annie had been the more reckless. At the police station, they nagged and contradicted, like a couple on the verge of divorce trying to get through an anecdote about their last holiday. Taken to Micheline's house to re-enact the killing, they became kinder, and readier to admit guilt; indeed, Annie couldn't stop admitting guilt, insisting that it wasn't spur of the moment, they'd planned it all, insisting even when Stephanie warned her they were headed for the guillotine.
So there it was: a crime, an investigation, a confession – all the features of a classic TV whodunit. But the skill in Boucault's film lay in the way it resisted the pull of conventional narrative, never allowing you to feel that this was a neat ending, and that anything had really been resolved. The police could stamp this case "Closed", but you could sense the mess of guilt and spoiled lives spreading out beyond the frames of the film.
We're terrible witnesses, too, because human memory is so unreliable, which is not to say that it isn't still a marvel. The last of the present series of Horizon looked at how memory works. It resides, it seems, in the hippocampi, two regions that perch inside the brain like a pair of headphones. The programme contained interesting insights and characters, such as John Forbes, whose hippocampi were damaged by premature birth; he can't remember a thing, and has to build his past from old photos (like Guy Pearce's character in Memento, who has clues to a murder tattooed on his body). It's not only the past that eludes him, so do thoughts of the future, which also sit in the hippocampi, apparently built from fragments of memory. But over 50 minutes, not a lot seemed to get said, and the science kept being crowded out by human interest. Surely Horizon used to be more challenging and stimulating than it is these days, but perhaps my memory's playing tricks.
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