“The Staircase” Deconstructs the True-Crime Genre

In 2004, when the French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released “The Staircase,” his documentary series, the title referred to a crime scene. The documentary followed the arrest, trial, and release of Michael Peterson, a novelist and a wannabe politician, after his second wife, Kathleen, was found bloodied and crumpled at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s home, in Durham, North Carolina, in 2001. Antonio Campos, who adapted the original documentary as a scripted series for HBO, treats the staircase as a metaphor. His version, a baroque drama that reimagines not only the tragedy of the Peterson family but also the filming of de Lestrade’s documentary, depicts the transfigurative process by which facts are stacked and elevated to narrative. The resulting staircase is Escherian.

De Lestrade’s documentary series, an influential true-crime portrait, made the Peterson case an international story. Eighteen years after its première, accounting for the popularity of the true-crime genre is like accounting for the sun: it’s here today and it will be here tomorrow, and more than thirty minutes of exposure can cause a rash. That, at any rate, is the complaint—that a glut of crime entertainment has left us desensitized to extraordinary and ordinary violence. But one senses that Campos’s undertaking, an eight-episode miniseries that he directed with Leigh Janiak, is driven by something pure and aesthetic-minded. Campos seems to think it’s not only impossible but gauche to play compensatory detective, light-shedder. You will not come away from “The Staircase” convinced of Peterson’s innocence or guilt. The show makes tantalizing equivalences between the filmmaking process and the justice system as storytelling vehicles, without ever tipping into art-house arrogance.

De Lestrade’s “Staircase” was a courtroom film, which hummed with a farcical undertone. Luciano Michelini’s “Frolic” could have scored the sequences of American blunder: the local news reporter getting tongue-twisted while delivering a spot at the grave site of a Peterson family friend, whose death was suspiciously similar to Kathleen’s; the defense lawyer badgering an assistant the night before the trial. An air of Southern Gothic permeates the new miniseries. The story is told in multiple time lines, as is the current fashion, but the technique feels justified—flashbacks to the years before Kathleen’s death give fullness to a character who in the source text is simply a dead body. Because of the nonlinear pacing, Kathleen (Toni Collette) is simultaneously dead and alive. A telecommunications executive, she supports her husband’s dilettante life style. Michael (Colin Firth) is mesmerizingly inscrutable: by turns egotistical and sensitive, resolute and passive. The couple, along with their blended brood—Clayton (Dane DeHaan), Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger), Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), Margaret (Sophie Turner), and Martha (Odessa Young)—sit erect at long dining tables in their mansion, the embodiment of tortured bourgeois ascendance. At dinner, Michael presides with a goblet, yet the attic is riddled with bats. The swimming pool has a sinister glow.

Campos’s “Staircase” is a family drama, keyed convincingly to the precarity of this modern unit. It cannily portrays the Petersons’ issues as innocuous one moment—who among us doesn’t have a relative with a record, or a drinking problem, or a closeted sex life—and foreboding the next. One evening, a drunken Kathleen, in an attempt to show off for some guests, dives head first into the pool and doesn’t surface. Michael jumps in after her, and Kathleen later wakes up in the hospital wearing a neck brace. Soon the camera swerves to a television screen, where the Twin Towers are aflame. (“This is really bad,” Michael intones.)

Firth and Collette have a beguiling chemistry. They play the couple as troubled yet passionate. They enjoy an impromptu fuck in the kitchen. They fight over bills. One threatens divorce in the morning and initiates a dance at a gala in the evening. “The Staircase” creates a plausible deniability of Michael’s guilt, not to trick us but to demonstrate the slippery nature of the couple’s relationship. Kathleen’s death, then, is less the devastating, precipitating event in the series than the atmosphere—a physical picture of the conflict that lurks in many human situations but especially in the private lives of the wealthy. A hallmark of the true-crime genre is the reënactment of the crime. This hokey trope doesn’t belong in “The Staircase”; the move is more TLC than HBO. Still, we watch Kathleen die—more than once—as the series shows different accounts of her death. We watch Michael murder Kathleen after she discovers his sexual relationships with men. (He is bisexual.) We also watch Kathleen tumble down the staircase by accident. These speculations do a lot of work at once. They make viewers come to terms with their own latent thirst for violence, and they make the artist come to terms with the ruthlessness of his project.

Prosecutors successfully built a case against Michael Peterson, who was convicted and imprisoned for eight years. In 2017, he was freed after submitting an Alford plea, which, in legal terms, is a paradox: the client pleads guilty while maintaining his innocence. One can see why a documentarian would have found the saga irresistible. In the early twenty-tens, after a forensics scandal led to Michael’s conviction being overturned, he was granted a new trial, and de Lestrade, in the thrall of the story, began filming again. (Campos, who had started planning his adaptation, was present in the courtroom, too.) In Campos’s miniseries, de Lestrade is played by Vincent Vermignon; Juliette Binoche portrays Sophie Brunet, one of the documentary’s editors. This meta element is Campos’s intervention, his “something new.” He presents de Lestrade as an artist with an elegant narrational strategy, who is drawn to tales of murder and dishonesty and yet seems reluctant to pass judgment. De Lestrade and his producer are hungry for a compelling case, and Michael offers them the food they need, once they persuade him to sit for interviews. He comes to adore the camera, allowing his interlocutors the access that made de Lestrade’s “Staircase” so revolutionary to the form.

Given its ambitions, Campos’s series could have used a longer running time. By the finale, viewers will feel rushed. One viewer, in particular, has expressed distaste for the portrayal: the real-life de Lestrade. He believes Campos has made his character—and his documentary—appear biased in favor of Michael’s innocence, and seems unnerved by Campos’s interest in the tension between documentary filmmaking as journalism and as entertainment. Brunet has made similar objections to how she is depicted in the new series. In 2004, via prison correspondence, she entered into a romantic relationship with Michael that lasted until 2017. The miniseries insinuates that Brunet began falling in love with Michael while she was editing the documentary. In one scene, de Lestrade and his producer are in a soundproof studio; on the other side of the barrier, a string ensemble is recording music for the final edit. The producer wants to fire Brunet, who at this point in the drama has begun writing to Michael, and while the two men bicker the ensemble plays on, with de Lestrade occasionally pausing to give the musicians feedback. It’s an exquisite composition, typifying the clash of aesthetics and ethics.

The real-life Brunet may feel that her professionalism has been undermined by Campos. But, in “The Staircase,” the union of Brunet and Michael is mythological; it is the verboten union of the artist and the subject, and, as such, it is doomed. ♦

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