Rising French star Noee Abita impresses as a legal assistant given the chance to work on a high-stakes case in rural France 

First Case

Source: Locarno International Film Festival

‘First Case’

Dir/scr: Victoria Musiedlak. France. 2023. 98mins

Inexperience is overcome on both sides of the camera in French writer-director Victoria Musiedlak’s feature-length debut First Case. A character study of its legal assistant protagonist in the guise of a romance-tinged drama, it’s primarily a very fine showcase for rising Gallic star Noee Abita — Cesar-nominated for her performance in Charlene Favier’s Slalom (2021). Premiering in the audience-oriented Piazza Grande section at Locarno, the film will likely find a modest niche in Francophone territories in addition to further festival play and small-screen exposure.

Delivers a multi-layered characterisation within a convincing social/familial context

Previously noted for her breakout in (and as) Lea Mysius’ Ava (2017), and also currently visible via Mikael Hers’ Passengers of the Night, Abita compels attention throughout as Nora, 26-year-old employee of an old-school Paris law-firm. She is sent to the northern city of Arras to monitor the questioning of 18-year-old apprentice carpenter Jordan (Alexis Neises), a troubled but harmless-seeming youth being brusquely interrogated by cop Servan (Anders Danielsen Lie) over the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl. When news emerges that her brutally battered corpse has been discovered in a forest the stakes rapidly escalate, and Nora — previously restricted to financial cases — seizes the chance to work on a juicy criminal matter.

Complications inevitably ensue, exacerbated by a fast-blossoming attraction between Nora and cocky flic Servan that contravenes basic rules of professional ethics. As charismatically played by versatile Norwegian star Danielsen Lie (increasingly familiar to international audiences via 2021’s The Worst Person in the World and Bergman Island), Servan is a slick and not entirely trustworthy charmer. His bemused, less-than-sympathetic reaction to Nora’s revelation — during a steamy interlude in his car — that she is still a virgin is just one red flag she misses. But while there are predictable and sometimes implausible and/or melodramatic elements in Musiedlak’s screenplay, including the development of Servan’s character,  these are outweighed by some more original and surprising developments in the final act.

It helps that the film’s focus is so firmly on Abita’s vulnerable but resilient Nora — quite literally so, as so much of the picture’s effect depends on the simple but crucial matter of her facial expressions. A belated transition towards more assertive adult womanhood is traced in visual terms via gradual changes in Nora’s attire (by costume dseigner Celine Brelaud), makeup (Chloe Van Lierde) and hair-styling (Thomas Arnould.)

The film delivers a multi-layered characterisation within a convincing social/familial context — French-born Nora is the daughter of intellectual parents who fled Algeria’s civil strife in the mid-1990s. Such background details help make First Case (whose French title, Premiere Affaire, contains a somewhat over-obvious double-meaning) an intriguing sort of unofficial companion-piece to Alice Diop’s current festival-circuit sensation Saint Omer. The locations of the criminal cases in the two films even lie only 70km apart, in the same small administrative departement of France, Pas de Calais. 

A solidly professional package on all fronts, First Case is perhaps inevitably a rather more straightforwardly conventional, commercially-oriented enterprise than Diop’s ambitious, haunting disquisition on motherhood, race and justice. But Musiedlak — whose previous shorts include the thematically similar, but tonally much lighter A Capital Case (2018) — does occasionally display a stylistic flourish, including restrained, effective touches of slow-motion, and an intriguingly subtle and enigmatic leitmotif involving solitary birds.

The film kicks off in boldly striking fashion with a nightclub scene in which Nora and her sister groove to a moody reinterpretation of pop standard ‘Needles and Pins.’ And even if nothing that follows quite manages to match this curtain-raising moment for sheer impact, it augurs well for whichever direction Musiedlak takes next.

Production company: Ligne 2

International sales: Be For Film, info@beforfilms.com

Producer: Camille Deleau

Cinematography: Martin Rit

Production design: Clemence Ney

Editing: Carole Le Page

Music: Olivier Marguerit

Main cast: Noee Abita, Anders Danielsen Lie, Alexis Neises, Francois Morel, Saadia Bentaieb