A Refreshingly Unfussy Procedural That Could Still Go Deeper [Cannes]

May 18, 2023

At its best moments, the extremely straightforward construction of Cédric Kahn’s “The Goldman Case” allows for fascinating dynamics and images to occur apparently unforced, as if by themselves, for the viewer to seize on their own. The film, which has just opened the Directors’ Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is refreshing for this bared-down, almost documentary-like approach — especially because it focuses on an incredibly complex man who needs all the space he can get to show everything that he is, in all his apparent contradictions. 
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This revelation takes place progressively, over the course of the almost surgically precise and aggressive trial that takes up most of the film’s runtime. But Pierre Goldman isn’t even in the room when we get our first impression of him. The film opens on his lawyer, Georges Kiejman (actor and screenwriter Arthur Harari, who co-wrote the Cannes competition title “Anatomy Of A Fall,” another trial film), furious to learn by mail that his client is firing him just a few days before the trial is set to begin. Goldman isn’t present, but his paranoia, and more particularly his anxieties around Jewishness — both Kiejman’s, whom he accuses in his letter of being an “armchair Jew”, and his own — are in this way already established, installing the film’s peculiar and electric atmosphere. 
This prologue naturally makes the moment Goldman is finally seen, when he enters the courtroom, all the more exciting and disquieting. Actor Arieh Worthalter lends his own magnetic presence to the mysterious man who, it turns out, has a legion of fans and supporters there to cheer him and boo the prosecution. What about this irascible man, a person accused of severe crimes, can justify such reactions? Learning the facts initially raises more questions than answers. Goldman — who eventually accepts to have Kiejman represent him — is accused of killing two people and wounding two others during a robbery at a pharmacy in Paris, in December 1969. He denies being the person behind these crimes, yet readily admits to three other robberies which saw great sums of money stolen but no casualties. Goldman isn’t a Robin Hood figure — he didn’t attack banks but small shops that were easy targets, and claims at his trial that he isn’t proud of what he has done. But why do it, then? 
Finding that out is what this trial is really about. Despite Kiejman’s efforts to stick to the facts, to simply prove that there isn’t enough evidence to place Goldman at the scene of the pharmacy robbery, what everyone else present really wants to figure out is Goldman himself. 
One of the film’s most fascinating moments comes right at the beginning of proceedings, when Goldman passionately declares that he does not want character witnesses to go on the stand to defend his morality, since what matters are the facts and not his character. He doesn’t want “anything theatrical” — a statement which immediately causes his fans to erupt in applause and chants of “Goldman innocent!” Kahn here thankfully does not underline the irony of the situation more than is necessary, but he also does not do much with it at all. At times, his treatment of the story feels a little too unobtrusive, the meaningful moments such as this one, or the various ideas brought up on both sides during the trial somewhat fizzling out and going nowhere. Such is the hard reality of a trial, where there is simply no time to delve deeper into the ideas that are brought up by both sides as little more than single-use rhetorical tools. But Kahn’s direction could have perhaps done more to if not follow through those ideas, then at least give a sense of how ultimately futile it would be to even try to do so, and how pointless those debates really are in the context of the trial. Floating over the tenseness of those scenes, in which topics as contentious as institutional and ambient racism, antisemitism, and intergenerational trauma are discussed, is a feeling of frustration at this discursiveness and at Kahn’s refusal to fully acknowledge it. 
One could argue that this vagueness is, in fact, ambiguity, and that it comes down to Goldman’s own inherently disjointed self. As the prosecution analyses Goldman’s past and his biography, the accused’s relationship to his own Jewishness emerges as the crux of all his troubles: the son of a heroic Polish Jew who fought in the Resistance, Pierre tried to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming involved with revolutionaries in South America, but returned to Paris tortured by feelings of inferiority and shame. It’s a story that hardly explains everything about Goldman, and when Kiejman decides to use it as his main line of defence at the end, we know he isn’t entirely convinced by it either. But it is unclear what Kahn truly makes of it, and we are simply left to sift all of this information by ourselves. This does not make the film any less gripping, or Goldman any less fascinating, but more input from its director could have perhaps turned it into something altogether more powerful and memorable. [B]
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