Samber alert

Samber alert

By Michael Pickard
February 22, 2024

The Director’s Chair

Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade explains how French true crime drama Samber sought to right 30 years of wrongs by giving a voice to the victims of a serial predator.

Oscar-winning director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is a filmmaker best known for documentaries based on true crime stories. Murder on a Sunday Morning, for which he won an Academy Award in 2002, recounted a criminal case involving a black American teenager wrongly accused of murder, while his docu-series The Staircase, about the murder trial against author Michael Petersen, debuted in 2004 and was later turned into an HBO drama.

More recently, however, he has turned to scripted drama as a way to tell real-life stories. Laëtitia, which debuted in 2020, explores the case of Laëtitia Perrais, a young waitress who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2011, having spent her youth in the care system.

His latest project, Sambre (international title Samber), has now broken records for broadcaster France 2 after debuting in November last year. It drew four million viewers to each episode, while three million views were added online just eight days after its launch.

“I’m very interested – not just in true crime, because it’s not enough – when specific stories reveal how we live in our society and how the democratic function works or not, and there are very specific stories that tell you many things,” he tells DQ. “Of course, with Samber, you can see it as true crime story but it’s a very important story because it reveals so many things about how we reacted across decades to sexual crime. It was really a story to be told.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

“When you do a documentary, you are trying to catch the reality, the facts. When you are doing fiction, it’s not about the story itself, it’s what kind of story that story tells you. When you are writing fiction based on true events, you give a sense of what was happening; what was in front of our eyes that we couldn’t see. It’s a little bit different, and I think it’s really exciting to do that kind of job.”

Produced by What’s Up Films and Federation Studios in coproduction with Versus Production, Samber takes its name from a river in northern France, where a huge number of sexual assaults were committed along a road beside the river. Beginning in the early 80s, the attacks were similar in the way they happened and the time they took place, most often in the mornings. However, the police failed to get on top of the situation and it took more than 30 years before the man responsible for at least 54 cases of rape or sexual assault was brought to justice.

The drama takes its lead from a book by Alice Géraud about the real-life case. Géraud partnered with Marc Herpoux to create and write the series, while de Lestrade directs all six episodes. Federation Studios is also the international distributor.

“Alice completed an investigation and she wrote a book about the real people, so we had great access to every character, even the investigation files,” de Lestrade says. “We had access to all this material. We knew thousands of details about the case, but when you make fiction, you must find a way to tell the story. What sense are you giving to the story?”

After much discussion, the decision was eventually made to dramatise the real events from six different viewpoints: Christine (Alix Poisson), the first victim; Irène (Pauline Parigot), the judge; Arlette (Noémie Lvovsky), the mayor; Cécile (Clémence Poesy), the profiler; Winckler (Olivier Gourmet), the police inspector; and Enzo (Jonathan Turnbull), the rapist.

“It took us maybe three months to find that way, because one of the most interesting parts of the project was that we were telling a story over 30 years, and how can you tell a story over 30 years? That was the main challenge,” de Lestrade says. “We didn’t really have a character who could go through all 30 years, so it was quite difficult. But I knew from the beginning what I didn’t want – I didn’t want to do a classic police investigation, with the police on one side trying to catch someone. Usually in such a story, you tell how the police catch the predator or the criminal, but I really wanted to do a story about how we managed not to catch them during the 30 years.

Samber unfolds from five viewpoints, including that of Christine, played by Alix Poisson

“Sexual crimes are not only something between the police investigator and the rapist or predator. It’s much more than that. It’s something about all of society. I knew I wanted to start with the first victim, and then the justice system with the judge, the political arena with the mayor, and then a scientific point of view with a profiler. It’s about society, it’s not just about the investigator against a predator.”

Choosing to explore how the criminal at the centre of the story evaded capture for so long also led to the decision to reveal his identity to the audience midway through the first episode.

“But we were very aware that we didn’t want to glamorise him,” the director continues. “We just wanted to show him in his life. During many years in fiction, we are used to portraying criminals as main characters, fascinating characters, and of course they are fascinating in a way. But we really wanted to do a portrait of a predator in a very banal way, as someone with a very pathetic life and not glamorous at all.”

The structure the creative team landed on meant they effectively began planning six one-hour films, with each one focusing on a different character and set in a different time period. Yet somehow it still had to come together as one cohesive story.

Clémence Poesy as criminal profiler Cécile, another of the five subjects

De Lestrade admits he wasn’t sure it would work. “You have doubts before shooting. What will be the show you are going to shoot? You don’t have a very precise idea, but it’s a good way to do a good show, because you have to be surprised yourself by what you are doing.”

As he was the only director, all six episodes could be crossboarded by such factors as location or actor availability. But the subsequent filming schedule meant scenes from several different episodes could be shot in one day.

“For example,” de Lestrade recalls, “the character Christine – one day Alix woke up at three in the morning to go into makeup to shoot a scene for episode five. It was four or five hours of preparation. We shot the scene for three-and-a-half hours and then we had to shoot a scene from episode one. So during the lunch break, she went back to makeup and took off all the old makeup ready to do another makeup. It was sometimes difficult, for me and for them, but it was also very exciting and very challenging.”

The fact that all six episodes had to be part of the same story also meant many of the factors that gave each of them their own identity ended up being very subtle, whether that relates to a certain character or a new prop.

The drama is based on Alice Géraud’s book about the reveal events it depicts

“It’s about details,” the director notes. “It was quite challenging because we were crossboarding all the episodes while shooting, so we had to keep a clear view of the identity of each episode. All the actors also had to keep track of their character, which was interesting work for them.”

The result is a series that is sensitive to the true story on which it is based, and the real people involved, while creating a discussion around why it took so long to secure justice. In that regard, de Lestrade’s background in documentaries can still be seen in his ambition to give a voice to the victims.

“In episode one, I decided to shoot the two testimonies of the two victims, Christine and a teenager, in nearly just one shot, with the camera directly in front of them,” he says. “I really wanted to put the viewer in a position where it was like they were looking at a documentary, like they were looking at real people.

“I wanted them to have the feeling that they were watching a show – but also something more than a show; something a bit like a documentary. I think that’s why we got such a reaction. People were very moved by the show. Alix Poisson received messages from people saying, ‘This is my story. This happened to my niece, to my daughter, my sister, my aunt.’ The show speaks for all of them. I didn’t really expect such a huge reaction.”

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