A Silence: control, complicity, denial and manipulation in a psychological family drama

Joachim Lafosse, “A Silence” (2024)

Smooth, sober and straightforward in its minimal style, this Belgian film delivers its punches hard and heavy in its fictional retelling of the case of serial child rapist / murderer Marc Dutroux and the lawyer for the families of two of Dutroux’s victims, Victor Hissel, who was later charged and imprisoned for possessing child pornography. The Dutroux affair began as early as 1989 when Dutroux was convicted for the abduction and rape of three girl victims but was released on parole after three years of imprisonment. He was arrested again in 1996 on suspicion of abducting, torturing and raping six more young girls, four of whom were also killed, and in 2004 was found guilty of all charges against him. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. The case of Victor Hissel is no less repugnant, though Dutroux’s crimes, trial and sentencing rocked Belgium at the time, not least because the general public was shocked at the leniency with which Dutroux’s earlier crimes were treated by the police and the criminal justice system.

Through the viewpoint of Astrid Schaar (Emmanuelle Devos), the privileged wife of high-profile lawyer François Schaar (Daniel Auteuil), director Joachim Lafosse explores issues of patriarchal and social control, complicity and connivance, denial, lying and manipulation in a family barely holding together, blighted by a festering secret that the Schaar parents believe has been dealt with long ago, but which nevertheless threatens to explode into a public scandal that may well affect the outcome of a long-running trial that François Schaar has been working on. Through the conversations and interactions of the Schaar family members, we gradually learn what this secret is and how it is affecting the behaviour of the Schaars’ adopted son Raphael (Matthieu Galoux). The tensions that arise come to a head when Raphael, not knowing who or what he can trust, deals with his frustration and desire to set things right in a clumsy, ham-fisted way – and ends up in prison on a charge of attempted murder. Here is exposed the powerlessness of the vulnerable and the victim in a society that flaunts itself as a saviour of the weak yet is easily swayed by the glib lies and manipulations of a cunning sociopath like François Schaar to turn on and punish real victims of physical and psychological abuse and violence.

Both Auteuil and Devos put in very convincing performances as the sly and manipulative Schaar and his trapped wife, the latter knowing too well what her husband is still up to but unwilling to turn him over to the police despite the effect his actions are having on Raphael. The rest of the cast carry the film capably though Galoux (in his first film role) is all at sea in pivotal scenes where Raphael is drunk and angry. The film’s style is low-key with dark murky visuals. Much of the action is set in a country house where characters keep one another at arm’s distance in darkened rooms and shadowy corridors.

The film’s tone is very earnest, and audiences may find its mood and style confronting, disturbing and heavy-going. That the plot won’t end well for the Schaars is hinted at early, though the open-ended and ambiguous conclusion may come as a disappointment for most viewers.