Review: From a True-Crime Pioneer, a Different Sort of Truth

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In the United States, the French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is known entirely as a maker of investigative documentaries about American deaths. He won a best-documentary Oscar in 2001 for “Murder on a Sunday Morning” and his series “The Staircase,” originally shown on French television in 2004, has in retrospect made him a godfather of the American true-crime-series boom.

In his French TV career, though, he has mixed in the occasional nondocumentary project. He was, for instance, one of the directors of the French remake of “Broadchurch,” called “Malaterra,” which, sadly, does not appear to be available for streaming in America. (The curious can order the DVD set from France.)

Subscribers to the boutique Euro-streaming service Walter Presents, however, can see a more personal slice of Mr. De Lestrade’s work: “Three Times Manon,” an affecting mini-series that won several European awards for best TV drama in 2014, and its 2017 sequel, “Manon 5 Years On,” which has its premiere on the service on Thursday.

The two three-episode series are snapshots in the life of the title character, an emotionally frazzled young woman with a hair-trigger temper played by Alba Gaïa Bellugi. (She played the daughter of Mathieu Kassovitz’s burned-out spy in the French series “The Bureau.”) “Three Times” presents her as a 15-year-old who’s been sent to a reform school after viciously attacking her mother; “5 Years On” picks up her life at 20, still struggling for control but holding down a job and juggling a boyfriend and a girlfriend.

The structure and titles of the series, with their echoes of Michael Apted’s “Up” films, reflect their documentary flavor. They’re fiction in a plain-spoken, observational, unadorned style that doesn’t really exist in American TV drama.

It’s important to watch both series, and in the proper order, because Mr. De Lestrade (who directed all the episodes and wrote them with Antoine Lacomblez) isn’t big on providing explicit answers. To understand the rage that can still overtake Manon at any moment in “5 Years On,” you need to have experienced life with her in “Three Times.”

Her relationship with her mother (in the absence of a father) is clearly at the root of things, but the earlier series shows us just a few minutes of their lives together before Manon grabs a knife and subsequently is sent away. She’s a hard case, inarticulate and pathologically defensive, and the school is torture for her (in the ways reform schools typically are in cautionary dramas).

But a series of women — a sympathetic judge who gives her second and third chances, a matronly cook and, most important, a tough literature and drama teacher — push her and protect her. Mr. De Lestrade doesn’t present them as Hollywood-style saints, but as conscientious civil servants who are extraordinary primarily in their doggedness. Their sympathy for Manon is no more important in the story than their determination to do their jobs well.

“Three Times” is loosely plotted and episodic. It hits a few emotional and dramatic peaks — a temporary escape from the school, a moving scene in which the students put on their own puppet version of “Orpheus” — but primarily it observes the terrain as the girls battle, drift together and apart and begin, in the most tentative ways, to open up to one another. It’s held together by an excellent ensemble of actors, particularly Ms. Bellugi, Claire Bouanich as Manon’s main antagonist and rival and Alix Poisson as the drama teacher.

Marina Foïs is also good in the smaller role of Manon’s mother, whose smothering neediness during her visits to the school provides the implicit answer to the questions everyone asks about Manon’s violence. Variations of “I don’t understand” are heard again and again, from lawyers, judges, counselors and other girls who can’t figure out how to help or even cope with Manon.

It’s the audience’s question as well, one the shows address in oblique ways, perhaps because there doesn’t appear to be the kind of traumatic explanation these stories usually provide. Manon is just profoundly unhappy, and Mr. De Lestrade doesn’t make judgments or draw conclusions about that. Across six hours, he simply explores the possibility of changing it.

Original Article

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