Friday, August 26, 2011

The Staircase (2004)

Soupçons, France, 360 minutes, documentary, TV
Director/writer: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Photography: Pierre Molin, Isabelle Razavet
Music: Joel Goodman, Jocelyn Pook
Editors: Jean-Pierre Bloc, Sophie Brunet, Adam Lichtenstein, Scott Stevenson

This is really top-notch, a huge step forward it seems to me for filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade from his previous essay at true crime, 2001's Murder on a Sunday Morning (the only other one of his I know). It's worth seeing no matter what your predisposition may or may not be to this case. The production values are way beyond most such fare, and he allows himself ample room to deal with the reasonably complex case and trial and all its various characters, central and supporting alike, the whole thing clocking in at some six hours, with a confident sense of structure and pacing and superb, affecting original music from Joel Goodman and Jocelyn Pook. It's definitely worth spending the time with.

This seems to me a much more interesting case than the one he was working with in Sunday Morning—it could be his skill that makes it interesting, though, as the case had never particularly appealed to me before. It was a popular one circa 2003, when the trial took place. I've also seen it treated on TV on "Forensic Files," on one or more of the one-hour true crimers ("The Investigators," "48 Hours Mystery," "Dateline," "On the Case," whatever), and even a bit of it when Court TV was devoting day times to covering the trial in real time. In fact, I knew of someone who was actually into following it there on her work-from-home days. She was absolutely convinced of the guilt of novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of bludgeoning his wife Kathleen to death, her body found at the bottom of a staircase in their home in December 2001 following a late-night phone call Michael placed to 911.

For the most part, as in his earlier feature, de Lestrade's sympathies largely appear to lie with the defense. Because of my friend's sense of the case, and the post-trial TV episodes dedicated to it, where it was mostly portrayed as just another open-and-shut triumph for the police and forensics, this struck me at first as a bit counterintuitive. But De Lestrade and his crew mostly stay close to Michael Peterson's defense team as they investigate the crime (and the incidental non-charges hurled at him regarding his bisexuality and the death of a female friend in 1985, whose body was also found at the bottom of a staircase) and attempt to formulate a defense.

After the first time I saw this I ventured into the wilds of the ugly Internet, where the consensus appears to lean toward favoring that Michael Peterson is a contemptible, murderin' bastard, just as the jury eventually found. Many are even at pains to specifically debunk the elements raised here and the case made generally by de Lestrade both explicitly and implicitly, such as his attention to the very odd and shifting allegations by the prosecution about the murder weapon, which changed according to circumstances. Or the maddening ambiguity of the wounds suffered by Kathleen Peterson from the evidence of the blood spatter.

Perhaps because de Lestrade himself evidently couldn't make up his mind, I'm having a pretty hard time of it myself. Michael Peterson doesn't strike me even in this largely favorable depiction as entirely likeable—he's a bit of an egotist and prone to self-aggrandizing exaggerations—yet he never manages to impress me either as someone prone to fits of the kind of rage and violence that might cause him to beat another to death or the dissembling that would be required for his performance here. Those factors, in combination with the difficulty of seeing how the evidence here points meaningfully to a beating death (there were lacerations of the skin on Kathleen's skull, but no bone fractures, which is unusual in the kind of death it was determined to be and more consistent with the scenario of an accidental fall argued by the defense and its experts), all tends to indicate reasonable doubt to me.

Perhaps de Lestrade's most egregious instance of taking sides also supplies one of the great dramatic elements here, with a kind of real-life villain in medical examiner Deborah Radisch, who is monstrously cool in the way she goes about distorting and amplifying her findings well beyond her legal charge, most obviously in the way that she rules the wounds in the autopsy of Peterson's friend who died in 1985 the result of "a homicidal assault" (the story indeed of the exhumation and autopsy of that body are among this case's most shocking pieces, in terms of how far the prosecution was willing to go to score its points). As Peterson's lead defense attorney David Rudolf notes at one point, such rulings of fact are strictly reserved for juries.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about one way that I make my peace with the outcomes of the various true-crime cases I read about and/or follow is to more or less consciously decide to accept the determinations of experts and others working closely with them, relying particularly on jury verdicts. I'm going to qualify that somewhat here because I do have a feeling that something went amiss in this trial, particularly when I look at the gaming done by the prosecution—for example, its closing argument, delivered by second-chair prosecutor Freda Black in a down-home Southern accent evidently thickened for the moment, seemed to spend a lot of time on Peterson's bisexuality and much less on the particulars of Kathleen's death—which leaves me feeling somewhat less than comfortable. This is not entirely inconsistent in that I stay as close as I can to the simple principle that it's better for a guilty person to go free (even with the risk that he or she may offend again) than for an innocent person to spend a day in prison.

It's possible that Michael Peterson actually did commit the crime for which he was convicted, and if so he is certainly in the right place now, and the prosecution did everything it had to with all requisite zeal to put him there. However you may be inclined to judge the evidence, there's no question that de Lestrade's six-hour meditation on it represents a painfully exquisite portrait of a man, and a family, going to their doom. De Lestrade, with all his varying doubts and certainties, has built a sturdy if vaguely disquieting portrait here of the United States justice system (Southern flavor) grinding at its work.


  1. I preferred Murder on a Sunday Morning, but I liked this one, too, and am glad to see it here.

  2. Any sense of Peterson's guilt or innocence? Tough call for me.

  3. Yes, Peterson is likely innocent. But this film was almost unwatchable, in part due to it's length and complexity. Murder on a Sunday Morning is a true classic that is used as a training film for public defenders.

  4. Interesting! Thanks for your comment.

  5. Oh. I thought this film was OK. I'm not saying it's the worst thing I have ever seen or the best, it was just OK.

  6. Spiral, why do I suspect you never even heard of this before your Google search? Anyway, thanks for making the effort. Anybody need a ladder?

  7. Not heard of it before? I am a B-Movie geek! If it's not been in the cinema I have seen it. B-Movies in my opinion are a lot better than the bigger a-listed ones! And if anyone knows what I am talking about it would be you.