Following on its acquisition in May of “The Island of Thirty Coffins,” Munich-based Beta Film is doubling down on French production, acquiring international rights to the six-hour France 3 crime thriller “Presumed Guilty.”
Written by Franck Ollivier (“Zodiaque”), the limited series follows Lola, played by Garance Thenault (“La Mante”), who travels to a town on the Brittany coast for a job interview. She soon finds out that no such interview has been scheduled, and that she’s the dead ringer of a local woman who was murdered in the town 22 years earlier to the day.
Produced by Episode Productions for French public broadcaster channel France 3, “Presumed Guilty” is directed by directed by Grégory Ecale (“Mongeville,” “Commissaire Magellan”), and described by Beta Films as a “family saga set on Brittany’s wild coastline, conveying the authentic mysterious look and feel of the thriller series.”
As instanced by Beta Films’ pick up of “Thirty Coffins,” also set in Brittany, the acqusition of “Presumed Guilty” forma part of a far larger strategic drive into French drama series production by the Munich-based Super Indie.
“We are very pleased to be working for the first time with Episode Productions on Presumed Guilty. And more generally to work with the JLA group,” said Jérôme Vincendon, EVP International Sales & Acquisitions – French speaking Europe
“We intend to intensify our cooperation with the French producers, who are doing a great job, in financing and distributing programs,” he added. “We want to use our skills and our long time experience in international distribution to support, expand the reach and sell French projects.”
Variety talked with Franck Ollivier and Richard Bertowitz, a producer at Episode Productions, as Beta announced news of the acquisition.
After years of Nordic Noir, a genre whose essence is the revelation of dark secrets in small towns, how do you handle audience expectations when writing a modern mystery?
Ollivier: Yes, it’s true that Nordic Noir series have open up many new possible directions for mystery writing in the last few years. There have also been several other genres as well, such as British series with small town murder investigation à la “Broadchurch” that have added other sets of challenges and dimensions to the murder mystery genre.
“Presumed Guilty is also rooted in our own traditions of family thrillers which have always been very popular in France. This is a genre that I have personally been exploring for years from “Zodiaque”  to “Bright-eyed Revenge” , for example, both family dramas twinning strong female leads and murder mysteries. Yet it ultimately comes down to the precision, the strength and the authenticity of the characters. The aim is to develop characters that everyone can relate to. Our purpose is to take our audiences beyond any trends and try to reach that point of humanity and universality where any single viewer can potentially be touched by a story or a character, no matter the country or culture they come from.
From the very first shot – where a crane slowly follows the steps of an unknown woman – the series establishes a clear tone for itself. Could you please talk about your creative process of finding the right style and feel for the show?
Ollivier: From the very first scene, we wanted to create a strong impact both visually and in terms of storytelling. But we were also looking to open the show on a scene that would carry the hidden meaning of the story – a woman’s quest for her identity – a theme that will become central to the story as it unfolds.
“Presumed Guilty” is a murder mystery but also the journey of a young woman who wants to discover her own past and ultimately find her true self. I suppose this is how you find the right tone and the right feel for the show, by knowing, and therefore exploring, the deeper layers of the story and by making sure every scene – every piece of action – is a step on the way towards that goal.
The series’ first crime scene leaves a profound impact on the viewer – an effect achieved both by what is seen, on-screen, and what is not. What is your take on portraying violence, how do you approach it?
Ollivier : When it’s about violence, to hint is always stronger than to show. Feeling what the main characters feels prevails over finding the murderer, therefore the violence has to be felt more than shown. This is the tone Richard Berkowitz, the producer, and I wanted for the series, but also network France 3 as well, since it’s more of an emotional quest than a whodunit.
It is absolutely crucial though to establish powerful grounding for that quest. But what matters is the emotional weight of the situation, and that opening scene, I think, has that strong emotional impact because it places the viewer inside the victim’s head: a woman desperately fighting for her life. The less you show, the more you feel for her. And therefore the more motivated you are as a viewer to find out what happened to her. Showing the victim’s hand trying to grab a rock can be more impactful than any kind of visual violence.
What did you find in this story that was so appealing to bring to the screen?
Berkowitz: First, I thought the idea of having a young woman investigating her own mother’s murder was a very powerful premise. Then, as we were discussing the core of the story, I realized that the strength and the originality of the series would really lie in its theme: How a young woman was murdered 25 years ago and the investigation stalled since everyone assumed she was responsible for what happened to her. Because she was a free spirit, she was shockingly found accountable for her own demise, guilty of her own murder. That case stands out as a compelling example of how violence against women and femicide were considered not so long ago.
Not only did I think it was a significant theme, but I also thought that Franck’s story, by bringing the past and the present together, had the potential to say a lot about our society.
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