Why the Face?
It was like there was a kind of time warp.
“That’s a question we’d like to answer,” says Marie-Cécile Chenu. “Why the face?” She’s describing the murder of her son, François, a gay man attacked by skinheads in Reims, beaten and left to drown in a pond in Léo Lagrange Park. “They didn’t strip him naked,” she says, seated at a breakfast table with her husband Jean-Paul, backlit by dramatic picture windows. “It was just his face. They took it out on his face and we don’t know… Why only the face?”
It’s a good question, as her interviewer agrees. And it is unanswerable, like many questions raised in Beyond Hatred (Au-delà de la haine), premiering tonight as part of PBS’s POV series. Made in 2005, Olivier Meyrou’s documentary probes the effects of this brutal crime on 13 September 2002, the obvious but also nuanced pain of François’ family, as well as their evolving, complicated feelings about the trial of Michael Regnier, Fabien Lavenus, and Franck Billette, initiated some “730 days after the murder.” The film never shows the killers or images of the victim, though it does offer interviews with Michael’s attorney, trying to sort out details of his unhappy childhood and abusive father.
Allusive and abstract, the movie works something like a puzzle, a metaphor established indirectly in its early moments, as a child tries to piece together a picture that remains off screen and Jean-Paul directs him (“This bit fits better”). As the crime’s pieces never quite come together, efforts to understand (“Why the face?”) soon seem secondary to the effort to move “beyond”—violence, incomprehension, fear, rage, and hatred.
The film eschews the usual procedural steps—it provides no courtroom scenes, no newspaper headlines, no explanatory narration. Instead, it offers fragments, long takes of the park path where the crime was committed (“He didn’t realize what was happening because they jumped out at him,” imagines Jean-Paul, “He told them he was gay because they asked him”), and conversations that open up more questions than they resolve, especially as they are so carefully arranged visually, while the language remains circuitous and strained. The film’s sometimes overwhelming score—somber strings and the occasional piano ping—reframes intimate moments as performances, of grief or contemplation.
When Marie-Cécile and her daughter Isabelle recall the night they learned what had happened, they’re piecing together separate experiences, even though they were in the same room. Now, they sit in a café, the camera maintaining a steady medium long shot as Isabelle smokes a cigarette and Marie-Cécile idly handles her coffee cup. They think back: Isabelle had traveled to Reims to identify the body, her journey recounted in voiceover, as the camera remains fixed on the park path, joggers passing by and light fading. “At 3:30pm,” she says, the police “showed me his rings, a little later his photo after they had taken him from the water, a photo that looked nothing like him. I didn’t recognize him, only his hair extension.”
The film returns repeatedly to the ferocity of the assault—the aggression against François’ face. While this doesn’t precisely dissect the “hate crime,” it does suggest the abstraction of the killers’ unfathomable thinking. They were, you hear, in the park in search of a victim, meaning to “do some fag bashing.” Seating among piles of file folder, sucking on her Marlboro, the prosecutor tells the Chenus, “We know from their own statements, [the attack] came in two waves. They think they have the right to kill an Arab or a homosexual without being…” she trails off. “I guess they hoped they’d never be caught.”
After seeing what was left of her brother, Isabelle dreaded telling her parents. “There aren’t exactly 50,000 ways of expressing it,” she says, then remembers worrying about her mother’s reaction to the news. “It’s not that I was scared you’d jump down my throat,” she says, “But of a mother’s reaction, a bit of a she-wolf, you know.” Looking at Marie-Cécile now, so composed and self-reflective at the restaurant table-for-two, the image seems overwrought. “Remember what you said that night,” says Isabelle, “Not to me but to dad? It was odd. You said, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ while looking at your tummy, and I imagined you remembering giving birth.” Marie-Cécile shakes her head, slowly. “I don’t remember doing that.”
It’s not always clear what makes the difference between what’s remembered or forgotten, what bleeds through into the present and what recedes into an increasingly blurry past. Beyond Hatred doesn’t so much reassemble these pieces as it lays them out near one another, as if to emulate the shattering results of such violence. “It’s like our family has exploded,” Isabelle says. “We used to be very united. Sure, there were things that never got said, but my brothers and sisters and I no longer have the same relationship.” As sad as it sounds, her lament remains uncontextualized, her brothers and sisters mostly uninterviewed. One sister speaks passionately outside the courtroom, grappling with her anger and her desire for justice: “I know they must be defended because they have nothing,” she says, “They must be defended.” Still, she notes quietly, “They stole his face, they stole his identity. They emptied him of all his human attributes.”
The film resists elucidating this raw reaction or Marie-Cécile and Jean-Paul’s work towards their own reconciliation. They won’t speak with reporters at the trial, but plainly allow Meyrou’s crew all manner of access—even to an “open letter” they’ve composed for the killers, six months after their convictions. “We watched and listened to you and tried to decipher your logic of hate,” they read. As this was impossible, François’ parents come to another sort of question. As they contemplate the puzzles of self-identity and fear of difference, the components of hatred that led to their son’s death, they offer this aptly cryptic advice to his killers: “Meeting others will be easier for you if you learn to know yourselves.”