Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer is based on a true story of a young seminarian – the titular Bruno (played wonderfully by Dimitri Doré) who in 1905 brutally murders a young boy in France. In its very first scene we see him committing the act, although the details are somewhat obscured. Immediately afterwards he turns himself in to the authorities. Perhaps because the gruesome murder would seem so out of character for Bruno, an outwardly shy, sensitive 17-year-old, the authorities ask him to write his memoirs describing his life story hoping to find some rationale or explanation for his act. It sets up an interesting dynamic in which Bruno’s guilt is never in question and we’re exploring his reasons – if indeed there are any reasons at all – from his own point of view.
Thankfully the film, directed by Vincent Le Port making his feature film debut, is uninterested in pop psychology. As Bruno writes his memoir detailing his life leading up to the murder, we see that he is a lonely child raised by a stern mother and a charming father who dies when Bruno is but a boy. He later enters into seminary and thrusts himself into his studies, both to prove himself and also to distract from his increasingly violent temptations. In lesser films these details would be used to explain Bruno’s actions or would even be neatly arranged to show perfect cause and effect; see how this moment in his life led directly to what he has done? And yet, Le Port is careful to not provide perfect answers for his crime. Instead we are treated to a rigorous character study that strikes a rather perfect balance between showing the garish details of the murder and encouraging just enough empathy for Bruno so that he is not a cartoonish villain. It is a difficult balance to strike, but Le Port and Doré manage to do so.
It is rare for a debut feature to feel so assured and to have so few missteps, especially with a subject as tricky as this one, and yet the film is riveting from the very first frame. In addition to the wonderful direction, Le Port is aided by tremendous cinematography from Michaël Capron (Blue is the Warmest Color) and period costumes from Véronique Gely (Holy Motors). But it likely would have been for naught if Doré’s performance didn’t work. He is asked to carry the film on his shoulders and he does so with flying colors. It is one of the better, least affected debut performances I’ve seen in recent years.
When Bruno’s memoir circles back around to the murder, this time shown in explicit, bloody detail, we watch as the authorities take Bruno back to the scene of the crime. He says in voiceover that he would have cried if they had been more sympathetic to him instead of the victim and then he quotes Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” It at once echoes Daniel Plainview’s “I’m finished” at the end of There Will Be Blood and is also a sardonic nod to his religious teachings. It is a great ending to a great film; instead of providing a pat answer, it further deepens the mystery as to the motivations of Bruno. Some viewers may be turned off by the lack of a resolution, but for my money it was exactly what was called for.