Hervé Hedmar’s six-part French crime drama, Witnesses, starts with a dazzlingly chilling opening sequence. In fact, the excellent opening credits don’t kick in until six and a half minutes in, which is unusual to say the least. Those first few minutes delve straight into the action and give us chance to really get a handle on what’s going on. We’re introduced to the premise, the two lead characters and only then we’re given a pause for breath. Which is just as well because Witnesses boasts one of the strongest opening scenes I’ve seen in quite a while.
So this premise then.
We’re in a coastal town, its skies a bruised, slate grey. Seagulls caw from above. A man comes home from work. Intercut with this we see a scene from a graveyard, where a man – a graveyard tender – notices something strange in the distance. Then we go back to suburbia, where the man who has come home from work wipes his feet on the mat and walks into his dining room, where he puts down his pile of papers on the table. It’s just another normal day for him, except he feels a presence, which stops him in his tracks. Behind him in the living room sits a well-dressed man in an armchair. Next to him a woman sits in another armchair, her feet up on a leg rest. They are both dead, but have been made to look alive. Another woman, younger, sits on a stool at the breakfast bar, her corpse slumped into the chrome surface. We cut back to the graveyard, where the tender walks towards a grave. The grave has been dug up and down in the cavity, that sacred cavity, is an open coffin. These people who have repopulated the man’s house have been dug up and deliberately placed and arranged, dressed in clothes, their cadavers made to look like a living, breathing family.
Except they’re not.
Bang. Boom. Biff. I was sold straight away. It felt like the high-concept plotline of a crime novel and immediately I wanted to know why these people were dug up and placed so carefully. They had a doll-like quality, not just in the way they looked (glazed, lifeless, porcelain skin) but in the way they were placed – like someone had been playing with them and moving them around a doll’s house. The act isn’t murder but something darker, perhaps even more heinous – disturbing the dead. Not bringing them back to life, but something else… acknowledging their death but deliberately toying with them, displaying no regard for their memory. To the person who did this, they are mere playthings, to be toyed with, specifically for his or her own pleasure.
Called onto the case was Lieutenant Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier), who, with her team, matter-of-factly made their sweeps of the house. Her assistant, Justin, found a significant photograph in the bedroom – that of retired police chief Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte), who had been in a rehabilitation centre for two years. Maisonneuve is called into help and it’s obvious that this veteran cop, grizzled and carrying a walking stick, has previous with Winckler. As the episode unfolds we’re given the lowdown, slowly but surely. Winckler was Maisonneuve’s prodigy at police college, but their relationship was rocky. The quiet, stern-looking Maisonneuve doesn’t give out compliments easily, and you can just feel Winckler straining for her old teacher to give her the acknowledgement she craves. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge her when they first meet. It’s like a father/daughter relationship. She has a brilliant deductive instinct and an impulsive passion, while Maisonneuve is taciturn and statuesque.
The next part of the episode focuses on their suspicion of one another – Winckler goes to the rehabilitation centre to dig into his past and find out about a car accident he was involved in, which killed his wife. Maisonneuve, meanwhile, asks Justin guarded questions about her during a secret meeting. It takes a confrontation between the two – a great scene – for the two to start working together properly.
“Sandra, while working this case you’re sure to uncover things about me, my family, my past… I need there to be a level of trust between us.”
She laughed in his face at this, recalling his chauvinist manner at police training centre. He countered by wanting to know what she had against authority and why she left three days before her final exam.
Winckler then used her brilliant deductive mind to surmise that Maisonneuve doesn’t actually need his walking stick because he guarding himself against something or someone. But in scenes elsewhere in the episode, she woke up in the middle of the night and scrubbed her kitchen in a fit of OCD. A trauma of some sorts must be behind her compulsion to clean.
This relationship could be spicy.
But back to the investigation. Maisonneuve had no clue why a photograph of himself had been placed in the bedroom. But he knew enough to know that this was personal – someone was taunting him. As the investigation continued, we were told that this wasn’t the first time this hideous thing had happened – a similar situation occurred a month ago in a town 40km away. So six victims, two locations. Winckler comes up with a theory, based on a stunning link between two of the victims – both the ‘patriarchs’ of these two families of the dead committed suicide, and both worked in the building industry. More importantly, Winkler thought that they had been murdered, and what’s more that they had been dug up by someone who knew they were murdered. This person wasn’t leaving a message to taunt Maisonneuve, but left a message to tell him something.
Something or someone Maisonneuve knew, but was hiding from the team.
We wrapped things up when Maisonneuve visited Le Treport, the hometown of Catherine Martin, one the victims, to do some digging on his own. He had a conversation with a waitress, a friend of Catherine’s, who said she was angry and she “knew what they were like around here.” Maisonneuve decided to follow her, during which he took a cable car down to the beach. He was shot at several times, the bullets shattering the car’s glass.
For a first episode this was absolutely brilliant. We had six victims, a bit of a twist, a couple of tainted cops (one of them damaged from a traumatic experience), a chase scene and an attempted murder. Yes, there was a lot going on but it was so expertly paced and plotted it went by in a flash. And of course, it helps to have a really grabby premise. True Detective could learn a lot from this.
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