Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil is a surrealist comedy about the life of the female protagonist, Victorine, growing up in the banlieue (slums) outside Marseilles. Conventionally speaking, it’s all over the place. The characters address the audience directly; they go from being adults in one scene to children in the next; they die and then come back—symbolically living on in the mind of the protagonist—but then interact with other characters as well, which makes it difficult to tell who is alive and who isn’t. In film school we would often discuss whether or not a film created a world that follows its own internal rules. For Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil, the answer would be, What rules? The film also deals with some pretty heavy subject matter: poverty, rape, burglary, gun violence, harassment, alcoholism, and other aspects stereotypical of life in the ghetto. This, coupled with its nonlinear format and structural inconsistencies, makes it difficult to watch. At times, the film is downright uncomfortable. It’s also one of my favorite movies.
Before I started studying law, I imagined the law as an object with definitive boundaries. After the first month of law school, I’ve found that it feels more like a living organism in constant flux. Being a lawyer seems like a guessing game of anticipating probabilities, and law school is the process of educating the guesser. Sometimes reading cases reminds me of watching surrealist films; I have no idea what’s going to happen next (often I flip to the end to see how they end up ruling). But what is to be expected in the process of using legal rules to solve controversies is that the rules themselves change. Each side chooses what they want the law to mean, and then they argue for their view of the law to be accepted by the court. Often, judges seem just as likely to formulate their own version of the law as they are to rely on arguments made by counsel. The realization that ambiguity is inherent in our legal system can be uncomfortable. Most of us prefer a linear story, with a clear and likeable protagonist who succeeds in the end. When real-life consequences are on the line, we want things to be predictable.
Ambiguity and uncertainty may not be comfortable, but they are reality. Real life is not predictable. We often make great efforts to mitigate risk, but inevitably life defies all of our attempts to control it. If the central question in Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil is “What does it mean to grow up in the banlieues of Marseilles?” then it’s clear that the uncertainty created by the film’s structure is part of its answer to that question. The film uses nonlinear and unpredictable storytelling to reflect the instability of family and socioeconomic environment in the community. As troublesome as it is to read two cases with the same legal question but different outcomes, the ambiguity and uncertainty in the legal system have a purpose as well (other than creating a reason for lawyers). This “wiggle room” between interpreting what a law was intended to mean, what it does mean, and what it could mean allows lawyers and judges to guide and refine the law. In this way they use the ambiguity built into our legal system to improve the system (ideally). That’s the logic behind an adversarial system: that somewhere in the clash between two opposing points of view, we find the optimal resolution to the question. Despite the fact that we often get seemingly arbitrary rulings depending on the judge’s mood, our legal system does a pretty good job of providing relatively predictable answers to some amazingly complex questions.
That’s another thing about the real world: it’s complex. The two-dimensional characters and simplified plots of Hollywood movies do not reflect reality. The majority might look at a film like Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil and say that it is less realistic than a film like The King’s Speech because in real life we don’t spend one moment as an adult and the next as a child (at least not physically), dead people don’t often hang around whenever we’re thinking about them, and if you move a door to the middle of nowhere it doesn’t still lead to the same room. But consider the biographic film I’m Not There, which tells the story of Bob Dylan but uses different actors to portray different aspects of his life. This nontraditional storytelling helps us communicate something real in an unrealistic way. Sometimes a subject, such as the life of Bob Dylan or what it means to grow up in a French ghetto, is too complex to really be understood in two hours. Sometimes the flexible rules of storytelling in surrealistic cinema are the best tools to communicate some essential aspect of reality. Likewise, the problems our legal system addresses are incredibly complex, and the solutions to these problems are anything but obvious. Our understanding of those problems continues to evolve, and perhaps a dynamic system is the best tool we have to address these complex issues. Perhaps two cases with seemingly consistent facts do deserve different outcomes in the interest of justice.
The final lesson for the law that I drew from my love of this obscure French film is that anything is possible. I love the film partly because there is no way to anticipate what is going to happen next and partly because, in the end, despite the challenges of life in the banlieue, Victorine does finally achieve something like happiness. Fear and discomfort are inherent in uncertainty, because good outcomes are not guaranteed. But equally inherent in uncertainty is hope. Perhaps the greatest advantage that our amorphous legal system has is its ability to address the ever-evolving question of justice. How do we create justice in a complex, real-life world that is often anything but just? Despite its faults, our flexible and uncertain legal system is embedded with that glimmer of hope. If things can change, they can change for the better.