On the hunt for a murderer in 'Serial Killer 1' (unrated)

“Try to keep a little distance or this case will destroy you,” a fellow police officer warns Franck (Raphaël Personnaz), a rookie homicide detective who becomes obsessed with catching the man who is raping and murdering women in Paris. Franck is happily married, with a baby on the way. But the more he pores over the photos of the grisly crime scenes left behind by a madman who would eventually be nicknamed “The Beast of the Bastille” by the news media, the more the case starts to consume his life.

The investigation, which began in 1991 and would continue for the next seven years, takes up half of Serial Killer 1, director Frédéric Tellier’s sober, densely detailed police procedural. The other half of the film is set in 2001, as the man charged with the crimes, Guy Georges (Adama Niane), prepares to stand trial. The movie hops back and forth between the two decades, shifting the focus from Franck and the other investigators on the case to Maitre (Nathalie Baye), the attorney assigned to represent Guy in court. She has qualms about defending a man previously convicted of rape from these new, horrifying charges. But Guy, who is polite and quiet-spoken, tells her he hasn’t killed anyone, that he only confessed to the murders after coercion from the police, and that he’s willing to take a DNA test to prove his innocence.

Unlike David Fincher’s hypnotic Zodiac, which this film often recalls, Serial Killer 1 isn’t a speculative meditation on an unsolved crime (Georges was found guilty on seven counts of torture, rape and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment). Instead, the movie generates suspense by keeping its focus on the detective and the attorney, two professionals trying to do their jobs the best they can. They just happen to be required to confront unspeakable evil, try to understand it, stare it in the eyes.

Serial Killer 1 derives its title from the name given by detectives to genetic evidence obtained from one of the crime scenes. The historical importance of the case is not its luridness, but that it led to the formation of a DNA database in France that authorities could use to help identify suspects. By recreating the investigation with such scrupulous detail, Tellier illustrates the bureaucratic minefield that Franck had to navigate while trying to stop the murders. The obstacles include obstinate judges and fellow police officers too concerned with solving the case them.

But the movie’s most intriguing aspect is the relationship between Maitre and her client. When asked by a reporter whether she thinks Guy is guilty, Maitre replies, “I try not to believe, but to examine and to see,” the way every lawyer should. She is prepared to prove the prosecution doesn’t have a case, based on its lack of evidence, and her stance is important: It’s the only way to avoid miscarriages of justice and convicting innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. But before Serial Killer 1 reaches its courtroom finale, Maitre discovers Guy is indeed guilty as charged. The decision she makes then — the mission she sets for herself — is a testament to the value of compassion and empathy toward all people, even those who are beyond redemption. By being better than they are, we improve the world.

Cast: Raphaël Personnaz, Nathalie Baye, Olivier Gourmet, Michel Vuillermoz, Adama Niane, Christa Theret.

Director: Frédéric Tellier.

Screenwriters: Frédéric Tellier, David Oelhoffen.

A Kino Lorber release. Running time: 120 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, graphic crime-scene depictions of bloody murder, rape, strong adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.

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