Two dueling court cases have kept Americans glued to their TV sets over the last few weeks: Talking heads pontificate on Terri Schiavo, while performers re-enact daily scenes from Michael Jackson’s trial. All of which makes this the perfect moment to watch The Staircase, a remarkable eight-part documentary that offers an intimate, vérité glimpse of a very sensationalistic trial. The series’ eerie violin soundtrack brings to mind a Claude Chabrol film, one of those morally ambiguous thrillers about simmering, murderous passions within a bourgeois town.
In 2001, novelist Michael Peterson was charged with the murder of his wife, Kathleen, a Nortel executive; Peterson contended that his wife fell down the stairs of their luxurious North Carolina home. Academy Award-winning French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade tracks the defense team as they investigate, strategize, and even brainstorm about a Johnny Cochran-style catchphrase. They seem to get outmaneuvered at every turn by the D.A., who has little hard evidence but lots of potentially scandalous bombshells about Peterson’s personal life, like a computer filled with gay porn. Peterson’s adult children try to keep faith in their father, even as the media bombard them with gossip. Lestrade’s cameras pull us farther into the legal system than Law & Order or Court TV ever could, and the result is chilling.