Seeking truth and telling stories in cinema and the courtroom
reversal of fortune's reflexive critique
Based on attorney Alan Dershowitz's Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder's 1991 film centers on the attorney's successful attempt to win an appeal for Claus von Bülow, who was convicted of twice attempting to murder his wife Sunny by insulin injection. Among the first to be televised, the 1982 trial drew extensive media coverage—much of it sensational, given the von Bülows' social position and enormous wealth. The film's interest lies in posing sometimes unanswerable questions about character, motive, and the law. Giving voice to the comatose Sunny through flashbacks and voice-over narration, and creating a complex interplay of differing versions of events, the film reflexively questions the very nature and processes of understanding truth. The film is, in effect, two movies in one: a relationship narrative, centered on Sunny and Claus, that departs from conventional form, and a legal process narrative, centered on Dershowitz, that strictly adheres to classical storytelling conventions while also offering a critique of those conventions. This structural interplay further allegorizes the adversarial configuration of Western law that, the film implies, closes out dimensions of truth that lie in between, a notion the film foregrounds by calling attention to Sunny's body and her mind as objects of legal dispute that resist unambiguous interpretation. Through the intersecting lines of narrative and legal theories, this essay analyzes Reversal of Fortune's critique of storytelling conventions as a means of accounting for, "containing," or accessing truth—whether in the movie theater, the interrogation room, or the courtroom.
Lucia, C. (2014)., Seeking truth and telling stories in cinema and the courtroom: reversal of fortune's reflexive critique, in A. Wagner & R. K. Sherwin (eds.), Law, culture and visual studies, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 723-746.
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