French cinema is known for using gritty and raw techniques to convey a story. So it's no surprise that the country's latest film was inspired by one of the most unsettling murders in American history.
On March 13, 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was mercilessly stabbed to death outside of her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. Murders were common in New York during that time but this particular incident stood out because 38 people witnessed the crime yet did nothing to stop it. A media frenzy and anguished public debate emerged after Genovese's death. Today, it is a prime example of the bystander effect, which maintains that crimes are less likely to be reported if there are multiple witnesses.
As the 48th anniversary of the murder approaches, the victim's name still signifies the unfortunate reality of urban life. Just last year, the horrific death of Wang Yue sparked comparisons to the Genovese case. Yue, a 2-year old girl living in China was run over by two vehicles and laid dying as 18 people walked by her. Though a passerby eventually sought help, the child did not survive.
Incidents such as these are far from rare. Yet they often facilitate a rousing call to action and incite social critique. For this reason, filmmaker Lucas Belvaux ('Rapt'), decided to adapt the French novel, 'Is this the Way That Women Die', by Didier Decoin, which was inspired by the Genovese case.
'38 Witnesses' opens with the bloody death of a 20-year-old girl. The story is seen through the eyes of Louise (Sophie Quinton) who was on a business trip when the murder occurred. She attempts to piece together what happened the night before. The remnants of blood stains, lit candles, and meticulously placed flowers haunt her. Strangely, it seems no one in the building heard or saw anything.
Her partner, Pierre (Yvan Attal) denies he was even home, but since the victim's screams haunt him, it's clear he's lying. In truth, he and 37 others heard or witnessed the murder. After extensive police and media intervention, those who saw the crime are forced to reflect on their own values and ethics.
The film is has made the rounds at numerous festivals and New York audiences can see it on March 10 and 11, as part of Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series.