The three new episodes of “The Staircase” now on Netflix serve mostly to propel Michael Peterson’s woe is me tour, as presented by director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.
Peterson was convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife, Kathleen. The conviction was later overturned, and he was freed from prison. Then last year, Peterson pleaded guilty to manslaughter without saying he actually did it. An Alford plea, it’s called. A resolution, at least.
Some reviews have praised the French director for creating a filmmaking tour de force. In my view, de Lestrade’s singular special achievement was to gain Peterson’s approval to having a camera in his face for massive hours of pontification over 15-plus years.
Lestrade’s latest work is banal, not bold. For the filmmaker, being a fly on the wall does not require any remarkable skill. Inserting Jocelyn Pook’s resonant, haunting music over poses of Peterson isn’t hard, either – it merely fashions a mood that's grafted onto a predictable, unaware, self-aggrandizing man's voice drawing attention to himself. At times, a very foul voice.
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In the first 10 episodes of "The Staircase" and in the three just released, Peterson has in my view manipulated de Lestrade superbly. Peterson, with the director’s assent, must believe that the more he talks, the more convincing and interesting he becomes. He’s mistaken.
The camera and microphones, courtesy of de Lestrade, are the protagonist’s enabler, his avenue for repeatedly saying he’s been wronged all along. A “smear,” Peterson calls it. "Fifteen years of hell.”
Where the esteemed productions “The Making of a Murderer” and “The Jinx," for example, asked difficult questions and did considerable reporting, de Lestrade mostly excelled in letting Peterson perform. In fact, there’s a moment in the new material where Peterson, talking to some of his children, says, “Isn’t there anyone here who isn’t always on performing?”
There’s another interesting tell: one new episode shows Peterson at Kathleen’s gravesite in Maplewood. The cameras catch him not knowing which of two sets of wind chimes attached to a tree above is the one placed for Kathleen. The victim's husband, were he a familiar visitor to the cemetery since 2002, would know, wouldn’t he?
In the final three episodes, de Lestrade does seek at times to compensate for the dearth of attention he’d previously paid to the tragedy of the vibrant, much-loved Kathleen losing her life so violently in her prime. So: credit there.
de Lestrade also chooses in the closing episode to include one last, lengthy death scene video clip of Kathleen’s sprawled, mortally wounded body. In the earlier rounds of "The Staircase," he showed many more. Those visuals could have been softened some in editing, as is often done when images are disturbingly graphic, even invasive in a sense.
At one point in the new material, Peterson says this, of the moment on Dec. 9, 2001, that he claims to have first seen Kathleen in and around all the blood and blood spatter at the bottom of the back stairs on Cedar St.
“She’s dying, I know that. I could tell that right away.”
How could he know?
In the film’s closing moments, Peterson asks Alexa to play the late Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” The scene appears masterfully staged. Cohen sings, “the dice are loaded” and “the fight was fixed” and “everybody knows.” Amazing, isn’t it, that de Lestrade’s crew was conveniently on hand for Peterson’s display.
Then, after credits, Peterson pops up again for his final bow. He’s reading from "Romeo and Juliet," no surprise, then looks at the camera and repeats grimly from the text, “All are punished.” Lips purse. Eyebrows raise.
Curtain goes down.