France has been slow to come to the table in the so-called quality television revolution. In France more than in most countries, television is seen very much a second-class art form. For a long time, a paradox has been evident in French screen culture: the cinema industry was creative and successful; the television industry – which helped to subsidise cinema – was dull and unadventurous. But that has been changing. One of the series that acquired some international recognition was Spiral/Engrenages which has already run for five seasons with another in the offing. Since then, a number of French series are available on our screens, both free-to-air, on pay-TV and subscription services which can be accessed by a wide variety of devices including ‘smart’ TVs.
I’ve just finished watching one of them, The Bureau, a 10-part geopolitical espionage drama which is available for streaming in the UK and other territories from Amazon Plus Video. It came with very positive reviews from the French critical press (some have argued that it is the best ever French series) and has been praised in particular for its authenticity.
The French title is Le bureau des légendes (‘The Office of Legends’) which refers to a section of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), the rough equivalent of the American CIA, Israeli Mossad or the British MI6. From its base in Paris, it trains and directs the undercover agents of the French foreign intelligence services. Operating in the shadows, as “legends”, that is to say, operating abroad under identities fabricated from scratch, living in the shadows for many years, their job is to identify people to be recruited as sources of information.
The main character of the series is Guillaume Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz), known in the service as Malotru, who returns from a six-year mission in Damascus to be work at HQ in Paris. Contrary to security rules, he has not abandoned his fictitious identity under which he operated in Damascus, as academic and writer Paul Lefevre. It is under this identity that he resumes an affair started in Damascus with the beautiful Nadia El Mansour (Zineb Triki), a prominent Syrian academic specialising in the history and geography of the Middle East who goes to Paris after Debailly’s’s return to the city. Suspicions are aroused about her status – a spy for the Syrians? For France? Or someone simply over her head in situations she is hardly aware of?
Debailly’s boss at the department is the wily Henri Duflot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who is a friend of Debailly (they had worked together before his departure to Syria) but he has never been an agent in the field and is a little jealous of Debailly’s “legend” (in another sense of the word). Another important character is Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul (Florence Loiret-Caille) who is one of the “veilleurs” (watchers or handlers). She played that role in relation to Debailly when he was in Syria and is preparing to do the same in relation to a young agent, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudou). She and Debailly are training her to infiltrate an organisation in Iran where, in the guise of seismologist, she can investigate possible nuclear installations.
Another prominent member of the operations is a former army psychiatrist, Dr Balmes (Léa Drucker), who joins the team early in the first season. She carries out psychometric testing for the department and helps agents to manipulate their targets. From her earliest appearance there is something not quite ‘right’ about her. As a spy drama it is, as you would expect, full of double dealings, double agents and double crosses. A sinister CIA agent John Cassady (Brad Leland) enters the drama towards end, prefiguring developments in Season 2, and this relates to actual events of a few years ago where a German agent in Bonn was found to be working as a CIA agent.
The conflict in Syria is one of the main elements of the plot which involves three main (and overlapping) narrative arcs. The first is an attempt to save agent ‘Cyclone’ who was arrested drink-driving charge by the Algerian police and his subsequent disappearance into the Algerian intelligence system (or a maverick element of that service), ending up in the hands of ISIS. His role in this investigation earns Debailly the job of Duflot’s assistant.
The second is the preparation of Marina for her role in Iran for which she has to be selected by the head of an Iranian agency, a task which will involve a sharp learning curve both in Farsi and in seismology. She has much natural ability – she is a highly successful graduate of the élite National School of Administration (ENA), and she manages to learn enough Farsi and enough advanced seismology over a weekend to deliver a convincing lecture on the subject – sometimes the much vaunted realism and authenticity is somewhat overstretched. Her delicate frame and slightly childish voice belies her tough and resourceful character. She is trained to deal with the sexual advances of the older Iranian man who has to make the selection for who will go back to Iran with him – not to succumb but to hint that it might have been a possibility in other circumstances. But all these attributes aren’t enough so the service steps in to scare the most likely candidate out of his wits so he will withdraw. It shows how the system has little regard for the ‘innocent bystanders’ whose lives are shown to be badly affected by the ‘ends justify means’ perspective of the ‘defenders of France’ and their rivals abroad.
And finally there is Guillaume Debailly’s complicated reinsertion into the service HQ in Paris and his continuation to operate under his clandestine identity (against all the rules) because of the continuation of his love affair with Nadia. Debailly’s continuation of his ‘legend’ identity after his return seems like an addiction. He had never hidden that relationship during his videoconferences with his handler but has no doubt downplayed its importance and he has overestimated his ability to separate his spy persona and his feelings. It is clear that this relationship will be one of the main drivers of the story.
The atmosphere in the series is tense as is to be expected but it is interesting to see how the series deals with the minutiae of the espionage genre: the safe houses, the complicated business of following suspected foreign agents, and all the technical paraphernalia we have come to expect of the genre; and while there are plenty of plasma screens and powerful computers at HQ, the technology is not allowed to drown the story and the mise en scène which is anti-spectacular and clinical.
On the human side the drama explores the problem of identity and, despite the complex precautions taken by the agents, it suggests that it is impossible to separate the personal and the professional, because your job is what you do and you are your job. The ‘personal’ is underlined the by the difficulty Debailly has in re-establishing his relationship with his daughter (he has already separated from her mother) when he comes back to Paris. She is now 18 and ‘difficult’ and her mother insists she stay with him for a while. The relationship widens the emotive scope of the drama and at one point she is in danger because of her connection to him. Marina’s personal life is also involved: she is kidnapped and subject to extreme interrogation, not knowing with certainty that it is part of her training. And when her superiors decide she has had enough and that she has passed the test, she starts a relationship with the very agent who has carried out her interrogation, even borderline torture. Masochism much?
In some respects The Bureau could be compared to the BBC’s Spooks (2002 -11) which ran for 10 seasons (most of which had 10 episodes) but Spooks was more concerned with action, in contrast to The Bureau’s emphasis on character development. A better comparison would be the BBC’s miniseries of 1979, Tinker Tailor Sailor Spy, based on John Le Carré’s novel, and far from the world of James Bond or Jason Bourne. And unlike Tinker, Tailor, there are number of strong female characters – four of the leading characters in the first season and another two in Season 2.
There was some discussion in the French press which suggested relatively low viewing figures – not surprising in a series that demands some familiarity with geopolitics, is often low-key in terms of action, and much of it is subtitled into French (obviously a different sort of problem for overseas audiences). However, subsequent research has suggested a significant underestimation of the sections of the audience which time-shift – almost as many as those who watched it live. The various audience-research mechanisms seem not yet to have found ways of accurately capturing the way audiences watch television in the present era. Canal+, however, was sufficiently convinced in the prospect of success that they green-lit the second season before the first one had ended (and have since become committed to a third).
The series raises interesting questions about its emulation of American series production methods – showrunner, large ‘writers’ rooms’, a very much a secondary role for the directors. It also follows a recent trend in French TV series in using well-known film actors for lead parts – in this case, Mathieu Kassovic and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. I’ll perhaps come back to these issues after the next season is available to view in the UK .
I managed to watch the second series on video before it was available on Amazon in the UK (next month) and so to avoid spoilers I’ll limit my comments to the fact that it spends a lot more time ‘in the field’ (mainly Iran and Syria) and that it has the has managed to maintain or even surpass the high level of achievement of Season 1.
Here’s a teaser for the Season 2 – no subtitles necessary.