One of the basic tenets of French cinema, is that basically all adult characters, no matter their age, profession, race or background, are so inevitably — tragically — horny that their urgent — life-or-death! — desire to conduct an inappropriate affair, the type that goes against all basic legal and moral ethics, will undoubtedly colour their judgement and potentially ruin their entire life, yet with no doubt in their own mind that what they are doing is certainly wrong, they will plow on regardless, both literally and metaphorically.
You have to hand it to French cinema in this case: which other nation is so insanely committed to investigating, interrogating and exhausting the very human foibles of physical attraction? Certainly not any of the Anglo-Saxons.
The French title of Piazza Grande film First Case (Victoria Musiedlak, 2023) provides a double entendre. Première affaire can refer to a legal case. But it can also refer to, well, an affair. Combining the two into our protagonist’s emotional awakening at the prime old age of 26, Musiedlak’s debut feature is a good-old-fashioned legal thriller that feels like a throwback to the classic 90s era of legal dramas; when lawyers were sexy, made bad decisions, and got way too emotionally invested in their cases.
It starts with a classic bit of misdirection. An impressive left-to-right tracking shot, following a slim, tall, conventionally attractive French woman with long hair and a sparkly dress, walking through the club, shaking her head back a lot and laughing, and more or less having a wonderful time. At the end of his impressive take — the like of which is never repeated through the rest of the film’s runtime — the camera lands on Nora’s (Noée Abita) unimpressed, harried face. It’s as if to suggest that she isn’t usually the kind of protagonist you see in a film, or at least the type of woman you can’t so easily pigeonhole. But now is your time to watch her shine.
She’s just finished law school. She usually works on boring financial cases. Yet while walking away from the club, listening to her friend nattering on about sending pictures of her breasts to some guy, she gets a call from her boss: to represent Jordan Blesy (Alexis Neises), a young man out in the countryside who is suspected of kidnapping. The cop assigned to the case, Alexis (Anders Danielsen Lie), is tough in his line of questioning, prompting the young, nervous man to wet his trousers. And when the kidnapping charge is upgraded to murder, Alexis becomes increasingly aggressive, forcing an early confrontation between the lawyer and the officer.
She doesn’t like him, which, of course, means, she actually fancies him. She keeps these thoughts to herself until he turns up in Paris and seduces her, launching the young girl — excellently played by Abita with ever-increasing seriousness — into a moral quandary between protecting her client (who may or may not be innocent) and following the affairs of the heart. It’s incredibly, unsurprisingly, French.
In its mixture of work and sex — une formule française — it kind of reminded me of the profoundly mid Marguerite’s Theorem (Anna Novion, 2023), which premiered at Cannes but, like First Case, also enjoyed an out-of-competition slot. But whereas Marguerite’s Theorem decided it wasn’t actually interested in maths but Hollywood cliché instead, First Case finds a deeply satisfying way to end the film, asking us to count the cost of her work on her personality. And while one technicality might be thrown our way to show her legal brilliance, First Case is more interested in the effect this work has on her personality than getting bogged down in details. Never quite reaching the heights of legal classics such as Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996) or Presumed Innocent (Alan J. Pakula, 1990), but somewhere on the level of Legal Eagles (Ivan Reitman, 1986), First Case is a mostly solid cross-examination of how what we do can often define who we are, both inside, and outside, the bedroom.