A change of heart and mind--from a writer-director and a real-life person integral to the actual story--ultimately brought to fruition Laetitia, a six-episode French limited drama series. HBO recently acquired the North American television and streaming rights to the series from France tv distribution. The first episode debuted August 30 on HBO, with each subsequent installment slated to premiere on a weekly basis. The series will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
Rooted in true events that shook France in 2011, Laetitia chronicles the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl with Marie Colomb in the title role. Reconstructing the teen’s final hours and delving into her family history for answers as to what actually happened, investigators led by detective Frantz Touchais (portrayed by Yannick Choirat) begin to uncover deeply troubling aspects of Laetitia and her twin sister Jessica’s (Sophie Breyer) upbringing. Laetitia’s plight and ultimate fate become a highly polarizing story as it relates to France’s legal system, the police, social services, politics and how a single act of violence can impact an entire country.
Directed and co-written by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade--a Best Feature Documentary Oscar winner for Murder on a Sunday Morning in 2002--Laetitia is based on the best-selling book by Ivan Jablonka, “Laetitia ou la fin des hommes” (“Laetitia or the end of men”) published in 2016.
At first de Lestrade and the real-life Jessica decided against bringing the story to television. Upon reading the book, de Lestrade found the tale captivating and powerful--but he didn’t want to touch the project. In that it was such a tragedy for the people involved, de Lestrade thought maybe it would best not to do the series. “You may awake the tragedy for the people who are still alive--that was my first concern.”
But the story stayed on de Lestrade’s mind over the next couple of months, which caused him upon further reflection to reconsider his initial inclination. He explained that Laetitia “says so much about the way we live, protect and don’t protect the people who need to be protected” that he had to proceed, reasoning that telling the story might ultimately raise awareness and do some good for society at large.
As alluded to earlier, de Lestrade wasn’t the only one who was against making the series at first. When he met Jessica, she too said no. However, Jessica asked to meet him again a week later to talk and she decided to give her permission--noting that she under no circumstances would watch the series. Ultimately, though, she couldn’t resist and viewed the show when it was broadcast on French television. De Lestrade noted that Jessica called after seeing the series and told him that she was proud that she gave her consent, proud of her sister and how the story was handled. Though the story is tragic and painful, there’s value in sharing it and affirming the resilience of the twin sisters and the love between them.
That same affirmation applied to the cast and crew as scenes with violence, abuse, children, damaging sexual encounters were difficult to shoot and experience. Despite this, observed de Lestrade, the crew maintained “a positive energy” in that the work had a sense of purpose. “We knew we were doing collectively together something very powerful,” affirmed de Lestrade.
Collaborators ran the gamut in terms of their experience working with de Lestrade--from editor Sophie Brunet who’s cut assorted projects of his over the years (TV docuseries The Staircase, TV miniseries The Inside Game and Manon, 20 Years) to cinematographer David Chambille whom he teamed with for the first time on Laetitia. Director de Lestrade was in the market for a DP when his long-time cinematographer Isabelle Razavet wasn’t available for Laetitia. Razavet and de Lestrade have been working together for 20-plus years with credits that include the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning. While he acknowledged that it was a challenge to start with a new DP on Laetitia, de Lestrade found himself simpatico with Chambille “from day one.” The director was impressed with Chambille’s preparation, approach to the story and his sensibilities. De Lestrade recalled that he and Chambille were on the same wavelength in how to best do justice to the story of Laetitia, wanting to shoot the three different timelines--when the twin sisters were young, during the time around when Laetitia was murdered, and while in the throes of the investigation into what happened--in subtly different ways. De Lestrade credited Chambille with having an affinity for keeping the right distance from each character, and appropriately handling each distinct era in the story.
The prime challenge that Laetitia posed to de Lestrade was the responsibility he felt to take care of her family, making them part of the project, not wanting them to feel left behind or to be hurt again. The writer-director recalled telling Laetitia’s father that in order to attain justice, you have to get to the truth. That truth was the guiding light throughout for de Lestrade. While this was a drama and not a documentary, the series was based on actual events which in turn made it that much more impactful.
In addition to Breyer, Colomb and Choirat, the cast of Laetitia includes Sam Karmann and Clotilde Mollet as Sam and Michelle Patron, respectively, the twins’ foster parents; Alix Poisson as Beatrice Prieur, the twins’ longtime social worker; Noam Morgensztern as Tony Meilhorn, the prime suspect in Laetitia’s disappearance; Kevin Azais as Franck, the twins’ biological father; Chloe Andre as Sylvia, the twins’ biological mother; Cyril Descours as Judge Martinot; and Luna Carpiaux as Lola, a young friend of the twins.
While the American market will gain exposure to Laetitia’s story via HBO and HBO Max, this doesn’t represent the first splash that the series has made in the U.S. Back in 2019, Laetitia became the first French series ever to be selected for the Sundance Film Festival.