It started with a scooter abandoned on a suburban street in western France. If it had been found anywhere else, maybe things would have turned out differently. But there was no good reason why 18 year-old waitress Laetitia Perrais (Marie Colomb) would leave her scooter in the street outside her house; once her family discovered she hadn’t made it home that night, it soon became clear the reason why it was there was very bad indeed.
Based on a true story that rocked France, and directed by Oscar winner and director of The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, Laetitia is about more than just the police investigation into her disappearance. It’s also about as far from an exploitative look at a crime involving a young woman as you can get: Ivan Jablonka, who wrote the book this series is based on, said he wanted to write Laetitia’s biography, to rescue her from the scandalised reporting of her disappearance that dominated the coverage in France. She was a woman from an impoverished background in a part of France seen as a hotbed of crime by the tabloids; the second they got a whiff of her fate, the media pounced.
Laetitia starts out with a question: is Laetitia missing or has she been murdered? While her foster parents and twin sister Jessica (Sophie Breyer) worry, the police, led by Frantz Touchais (Yannick Choirat) swing into action. But already things are getting murky, and what seems straightforward from one angle rapidly proves to be a lot more difficult from another.
Extensive flashbacks to Laetitia and Jessica’s grim childhood with their abusive father Franck (Kévin Azaïs) suggest a past they may not have been fully able to escape. Meanwhile the police have rapidly pieced together her last hours, which lead them directly to local lowlife Tony Meilhon (Noam Morgensztern). They see it as an open and shut case, but without a body, what kind of case do they have?
While the police struggle to pin Meilhon down, word gets out that he’s a repeat offender, the kind of man that many people think shouldn’t be let free to walk the streets. What was a small town criminal case rapidly becomes a national talking point, with lax judges and a seemingly weak justice system in the media’s sights. Even then President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, starts using the case as a cudgel to beat up on his political opponents in local government.
As Laetitia’s disappearance turns into a grisly media circus, Jessica and her foster parents are the ones in the eye of the storm, struggling to deal with a situation everyone around them is convinced has already ended in tragedy. And as the focus on them grows, the attention increasingly shifts to their background of poverty and abuse, making Jessica into a cliché – and another victim of the crime that engulfed her sister.
What Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is looking to create with Laetitia is a picture of a young woman’s life in all its complexity, to turn her from a lurid tabloid headline into a living, breathing person with hopes and desires. The true crime element is both gripping and at times chilling – the better we know Laetitia the more gruelling her fate becomes, especially with the extensive use of actual news footage from the time – but this is a series that looks beyond the facts of one criminal case. She was a real person, and there was nothing inevitable about what happened to her.
The best kinds of crime drama know that crime doesn’t just happen. It’s a product of society, just as society puts organisations in place to try and prevent it. Over six episodes this series pulls back from one criminal case to show how the systems around Jessica and Laetitia (especially their social worker, played by Alix Poisson) tried to save the girls from a vicious, extensive cycle of abuse that time and again targets and victimises women.
It’s the performances that really drive the tragedy of all this home. We see Laetitia almost entirely in flashback, played by Colomb as someone heartbreakingly full of life and dreams she was striving to make happen despite the odds. This series makes it painfully clear that on a basic human level what happened to her wasn’t fair; it’s a point more crime dramas need to make.
Laetitia is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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