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The Women and the Murderer 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Another day, another true crime documentary on Netflix — but The Women and the Murderer (or Les femmes et l’assassin in its native French) doesn’t quite follow the usual formula. Directors Mona Achache and Patricia Tourancheau relay the horrific saga of a Parisian serial killer using only the voices of the women directly involved with the murders, manhunt and eventual trial: The mother of one of the victims, the police chief, a journalist covering the story and two key trial lawyers. When the case became public in the 1990s, media and locals dubbed the killer the Beast of Bastille, but this film might just offer a different, more nuanced and uniquely feminine take on the story.
The doc opens with home video footage of women laughing, dancing and generally having fun in Paris, but the joy is tainted as crime-scene images are edited into the sequence with increasing frequency. Then we meet Anne Gautier, recalling the day in 1995 when she called her daughter and a strange man answered the phone. He was a first responder. “It’s over,” is all he said. Anne drove to Paris, not knowing until she arrived that her daughter Helene had been stabbed to death in her apartment. Helene was 27, a psychology student. Next, handwritten script on the screen spells out a disturbing sentiment: “I don’t want to lie to you, I didn’t sleep either the night of July 7-8.”
Martine Monteil was a rarity in France: a female cop. And she wasn’t just a cop — in 1996, she became the first woman to lead the Crime Brigade, France’s elite investigatory unit. Helene’s murder was only one among a rash of similar stabbings and sexual assaults, so finding the perpetrator was one of Martine’s biggest priorities. Another victim, then one who remarkably survived the encounter. DNA evidence found at some of the scenes revealed that the killer was indeed the same man, but without a DNA database, Martine couldn’t identify him. The Crime Brigade had to rely on a handful of physical clues that cast a broad net, maybe too broad. Meanwhile, Anne takes it upon herself to aid in the investigation. Maybe the cops considered her a pest. So, nevertheless, she persisted? Yes, nevertheless, she persisted. As Martine provides a logical angle for the narrative, Anne gives an emotional one.
More than two years passed without a break in the case until the body of 19-year-old student Magali Sirotti was found. More DNA, same guy, still a debate among French authorities about the implementation of a database despite Martine advocating for one. She had to rely on paper files, and we see rows and rows and boxes and boxes of DNA data. So between the Crime Brigade’s outdated forensics techniques and reputation for bungling, the case wouldn’t budge. Enter Patricia Tourancheau, a journalist in a motorcycle jacket and miniskirt who used faux-naivete to navigate the man’s world of crime reporting. She was asked to sit on a juicy serial killer story for fear of compromising the investigation. (She’d also go on to co-direct this very documentary.) Then Anne, fed up with the cops grasping at straws, went to the media. People had to know that a predator was lurking in Paris, she insists. Hysteria ensued, putting the cops under even more pressure. And finally, a piece of paper, among who knows how many thousands, turns up a DNA match. His name: Guy Georges. He will be captured. He will be prosecuted by a woman, and defended by one.
I’ve outlined the documentary’s excellent first half, but the second half is even stronger. Achache and Tourancheau shift to the perspectives of prosecuting attorney Solange Doumic and defense attorney Frederique Pons, who give borderline-performative narration of Georges’ trial. The directors situate them in a French courtroom, and in one eye-opening reveal, show them both in the same shot, all but re-enacting a portion of the trial. (Tourancheau, who covered the trial for the journal Liberation, is appropriately interviewed in the courtroom gallery.)
Thanks to DNA evidence and Georges’ confessions, the trial seemed all but open and shut. All the better for Solange, who was still green, a young lawyer working only the second trial of her career. And all the more difficult for Frederique, who was actually an assistant to the lead defense lawyer, her then-husband Alex Ursulet — not interviewed here, and I’d argue he isn’t needed — although she delivered key orations during the trial, especially once it took a dramatic turn. A dramatic turn that offers some closure, surely a rarity in these types of cases where uncertainty hovers like an omnipresent dense fog.
Achache and Tourancheau offer a fascinating approach to familiar material: Using only female voices to piece together the upsettingly common narrative in which a sociopathic man perpetrates gruesome violence against women, and only women. The film occasionally leaves us craving more detail as it tries to be a procedural, an emotional journey, a broad commentary on gender politics and a lightly philosophical treatise. But a loosely sketched psychological profile of Georges opens the door to an intriguing debate: whether he’s a monster who deserves no remorse, or a flawed man worthy of rehabilitation.