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Je Verrai Toujours Vos Visages is an ambitious, rather earnest film about so-called restorative justice, directed by Jeanne Herry. The title literally means “I will always see your faces.” It left me scratching my head: Who’s “I”? Whose faces? See in what way? First off, there’s no real “I” in the film — the interesting thing about it is that it has a collective focus, a group of volunteers responsible for putting into place and moderating restorative justice sessions. Restorative justice first became known in post-conflict African countries such as Rwanda. The idea was that, instead of punitive justice, which often sets off repeating cycles of revenge, to implement a process in which war criminals and civilian victims confront one another. Ideally the criminals re-integrate society while victims have their agency and dignity restored to them. This concept has been transposed to France, and the film depicts two case studies.
One session takes place in a prison. Three prisoners (all male) face an equal number of robbery victims (two women and a man), while a volunteer moderates. A nice touch is to place a prop, a wooden baton, between the participants. Whenever someone wants to speak, he or she takes up the baton. Each side speaks about how the crimes impacted them, asks questions, explains how they’ve lived with the aftermath, and sometimes lashes out (in the case of the victims).
It’s fascinating to watch and we get some illuminating insights — for example, although the victims understandably consider themselves the be-all-end-all of the incidents, the criminals only had an eye for their booty, with no desire to harm anyone. And while the victims are afraid of encountering the criminals again, the criminals are even more afraid of being spotted, and would hide their faces if they thought they were crossing an erstwhile victim on the street.
Despite all this, the sessions don’t quite seem like restorative justice, as the two sides weren’t directly involved with each other: these criminals didn’t victimize these victims. In the African examples, even when the participants weren’t individually linked, there was real specificity: the war criminals were members of specific groups implicated in crimes, the victims resided in specific villages that had been targeted. The situation in the film is more generic, and so seems more like an encounter group session. Which is still valid, but the pattern is what we might expect: people letting off steam, emotional breakdowns, characters bonding, feel-good reconciliation.
While we observe the encounter group ups and downs, the director also builds up the second case study, which is very different. It’s more delicate, involving the incestuous abuse of a girl, Chloé, now grown, by her brother Benjamin. The brother is now free, which understandably traumatizes Chloé. The idea is to organize a controlled confrontation, and an agreement so that the estranged siblings don’t come into contact.
The director skillfully cuts to the meeting’s preparations, the context so fraught that there’s much more tension, even in the build-up, than in the group session. It’s more focused, limited to the two siblings, and the link of victimization is direct. However this case study too didn’t strike me as genuine restorative justice. Emphasis is given to the restraint agreement, which is rather technical, and could have been handled by lawyers or the authorities. Where’s the restoration? Where’s the justice? With all due respect to the director, I think there was a failure of nerve at the clutch. It’s a shame, as both Adele Exharchopoulos and Raphaël Quenard as sister and brother bring great authenticity to their roles.
The director is good not only at balancing the case studies, but also showing us how the volunteers invest themselves in the project. Though we never really understand why they’re doing it, whether there’s some deep-seated personal motivation, the character portrayals are always vivid and believable. More generally, though Ms. Herry films well and handles the narratives serviceably, it’s the acting that stands out. The large ensemble is uniformly impressive, most especially the performances by the principal women cast-members.
Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) is a dominating presence, smoldering on screen before burning it up. With her peculiar adolescent beauty, she expresses depths of feeling with seemingly minimal exertion. She then busts loose in the more outraged, near-hysterical range of emotion as the restorative justice process cuts closer to the bone. It’s possible Ms Exarchopoulos still needs to master the middle range of more controlled, rational expression (but then that’s what they said about Brando and Dean).
Elodie Bouchez is extraordinarily affecting as Judith, one of the volunteers. As an actress, Ms. Bouchez is a curious case. She exploded onto the scene in the 1990s as a fresh-faced ingénue in films like André Techiné’s The Wild Reeds, then seemingly disappeared. In fact she was working in theater and TV, and spent time in the U.S. She’s asserted in interviews that she never left, but it’s true that she’s only vaguely known by current French film-goers. In any event, she gives a strong performance, as Judith not only manages the sessions with enormous empathy, but also skirts getting emotionally caught up in them.
Another blast from the past is the great Miou-Miou, whose filmography includes films directed by France’s greatest directors, including classics like Les Valseuses. (She’s also the mother of the director.) She gives a moving performance playing Sabine, an elderly woman so traumatized by her victimization that she’s locked herself in a self-protective prison, not daring to come out of her home, but who emerges from her shell in the course of the sessions.
Leila Bekhti is powerful as Nawelle, a shop employee and robbery victim. At first, Ms. Bekhti seems to be overacting, but gradually her overwrought rage seems appropriate to her character’s experience. We suspect she’s also the token Maghrebine among the characters, meant to show that minorities are victims as well as perpetrators of violent crime. Fair enough, but it comes at the cost of diluting the racial politics implicit in the situation. Two of the three convicts are members of minority groups, and there was an opportunity to explore race relations (not to mention gender politics), but this was passed up in favor of individual psychodrama.
Suliane Brahim, a veteran theater actress with the Comédie-Française, completes this circle of brilliant women with her sympathetic portrayal of Fanny, another volunteer. Her role is to be a mostly calm anchor, keeping the raw emotions from fraying the group.
All Your Faces is a very worthwhile film about a worthwhile topic. How to define restorative justice is debatable, as is whether models used in some countries can be transferred to others. But the characters in the film are at least trying (like the director), and we come away thinking our societies should be making similar efforts to break the vicious cycles besetting us.
Production: Trésor Films/Chi-fou-mi Productions
Distribution: Studio Canal
Lead photo credit : Je Verrai Toujours Vos Visages poster © Trésor Films