The French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade won an Oscar in 2002 for “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” about a Black teenager wrongly accused of a killing in Florida, and a Peabody in 2006 for “The Staircase,” his influential series about a sensational murder trial in North Carolina. In the United States, he has solid credentials as a maker of crime documentaries.
He also has skills as a director of fiction, but his efforts in that direction have not received prominent play on American screens. That all changes Monday when “Laetitia,” an anguished, impeccably made mini-series based on a 2011 murder case that riveted France, premieres on HBO.
De Lestrade wrote “Laetitia” with Antoine Lacomblez, his collaborator on an earlier and equally excellent pair of mini-series, “3xManon” and “Manon, 20 Years.” Like “Laetitia,” they involve a teenager whose troubled life brings her into the orbit of the French judicial and child-welfare systems.
Nearly as soon as the show begins, the 18-year-old title character of “Laetitia” is missing and presumed dead, her scooter lying in the road outside the foster home in western France where she lives with her twin sister, Jessica. Over six episodes, using the police investigation of her disappearance as a framework for their own sociological examination, De Lestrade and Lacomblez piece together a somber portrait of a provincial society awash in male anger and violence and a bureaucracy whose good intentions can be thwarted by budget cuts, political posturing and demoralization.
“Laetitia” takes the form of a police procedural, but it’s not a mystery that assumes a classic shape or panders to a desire for cliffhangers and shocking reveals. The identity of the killer becomes clear fairly early, and he has no back story with Laetitia. The show doesn’t make a point of it, but we can see what the two have in common, and perhaps what draws them together, are childhoods scarred by abusive fathers.
What also becomes clear is that the story is less about Laetitia than about Jessica, the surviving twin, who is understandably traumatized but also curiously reticent as the investigation proceeds. De Lestrade moves back and forth in time, with impressive fluidity, showing us the girls’ heart-wrenching progression from shattered family to group home to apparent happiness and stability with foster parents. He keeps us slightly ahead of the police investigation, orchestrating information in a way that builds a mounting dismay.
The events in the actual case, which took place near Nantes beginning in 2011, were a bizarre combination of depressingly random and improbably dramatic, and they might defy a straight documentary treatment. (A best-selling book about the case on which the series was based also fictionalized it.) De Lestrade and Lacomblez use their license to shape the story but they don’t sensationalize it in any way — the atmosphere is of melancholic reserve, bordering on but not quite surrendering to hopelessness.
They’re helped by a fine cast, led by the pairs of young actresses who play the twins at various ages. Sophie Breyer and Marie Colomb dominate the action as the 18-year-old Jessica and Laetitia, and they’re quite good, but even more powerfully affecting are the two children, Léwine Weber and Milla Dubourdieu, who play them at age 6. They perfectly capture the girls’ distressing combination of innocence and experience; De Lestrade shoots them constantly running, playing and jumping on beds, an exuberance in stark contrast to their sudden stillness when violence or madness breaks out around them.
De Lestrade’s storytelling rarely hits a false note, save for a few moments when a conscientious cop (Yannick Choirat) or a compassionate investigating judge (Cyril Descours) gives a slightly stilted speech about class divisions or political grandstanding. (In 2011, the conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy used the case to attack the judicial system for being too lenient on repeat offenders.) The idealism of the officer and the judge stands in for De Lestrade’s, and you can feel him working to keep it in check, to keep his lecturing of the audience to a minimum. At one point, as the two natter self-righteously to each other about male pathology, a female worker in the background turns around and gives them a quick look over her shoulder. It’s an artful reminder that, with Laetitia dead, it’s all just talk.