Shows like Cops and Judge Judy let audiences pretend to be authority figures, passing judgment on unflattering fragments of other people's lives. Raymond Depardon's 105-minute documentary film 10th District Court puts a high-toned gloss on the concept, but the pleasures don't vary much. Depardon sets his cameras in a Parisian courtroom and watches as judge Michèle Bernard-Requin hears cases ranging from drunk driving to domestic violence; she dispatches them quickly, while giving defendants a chance to, as she puts it, "Say what you think matters." It's a sort of Instant Justice, and in the heightened atmosphere, the accused tend to fumble around, using unnaturally elevated language and making themselves look worse while trying to look their best.
A lot of the fascination of 10th District Court comes from its Frenchness. Depardon purposefully contrasts the indignant bourgeoisie who've been pulled over for drinking too much wine at dinner with the apologetic foreigners who stand before Bernard-Requin on drug and weapons charges. A Frederick Wiseman-like aesthetic neutrality prevents Depardon from underlining anything, but 10th District Court makes some subtle points about French national identity, including the way defendants seem taken aback for being charged with the kind of offenses that have often been celebrated as part of the national character, like drinking and romantic obsession.
Mostly, Depardon's simple, long-take approach encourages viewers to pay attention to how people behave when they're confronted with the state's power. The defendants are almost uniformly eager to get their side of the story on the record, and to be judged, because the need for impartial assessment is an unshakeable human instinct. Placed in that position, the accused in 10th District Court almost all admit to making mistakes, but they can't resist pointing out other crimes that they've seen go unpunished, and even as they insist that they've learned their lesson, they openly believe that they're only standing in court because of simple bad luck.
Key features: One complete deleted case, plus Depardon's lengthy explanation of how the movie was filmed, and a fragment of a post-screening audience.