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.
Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.
Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.
(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)
The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.
The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down
(The first part of this posting was first published on https://msb5.wordpress.com in 2014)
Hinterland is a good example of the global/local. Like some other modern states, the UK has statutory requirements and cultural policies that protect the other languages in the Home Nations and this means support for both Welsh and Gaelic broadcasters and film and television production in those languages. Now that Cornish has been recognised as a ‘European identity’ perhaps this provision will be expanded in future?
Hinterland is arguably the biggest Welsh-language production for some time, with a budget of £4.2 million to cover four 90 minutes TV crime fiction films (described as a ‘mini-series’ in the US). Commissioned by BBC Wales and S4C (the Welsh language public service channel set up at the same time as Channel 4 but with its own independent broadcasting authority to oversee operations) and made by the Fiction Factory in Cardiff the films are an example of ‘multiple versions’ production. Dating back to the coming of sound in the film industry this form of production sees two or more language versions of the same script made in parallel. In this case there is an all Welsh version as shown on S4C and a version mainly in English but with some (subtitled) Welsh dialogue that has just been seen on BBC4 and which earlier appeared on BBC1 Wales..
Conceived from the outset in terms of ‘local authenticity’ being a major selling point, the films have been sold to the Danish broadcaster DR (producer of The Killing and Borgen) and are under offer worldwide through the distributor All3Media International which operates throughout the anglophone media market covering Australasia and North America as well as the UK and parts of Europe. The first four films have been so successful that a second set of five were commissioned. These five eventually appeared on BBC4 (i.e. after Welsh screenings) in April/May 2016. A third series is already in production.
Ever since the success of The Killing and Wallander on UK/US TV it has been a commonplace to describe all kinds of police procedural/crime fiction television as ‘noir‘ and to make comparisons with ‘Nordic noir‘. In many cases this is not particularly helpful but Hinterland, while remaining resolutely ‘Welsh’, does have some similarities with the Swedish and Danish filmed dramas and perhaps even more with the less familiar Icelandic noir.
Perhaps the most distinctive noirish aspect of Hinterland is its use of landscape and the sense of isolation. The title refers to the area covered by the stories – roughly a 30 mile radius from the seaside town of Aberystwyth. This ranges from the valleys of the Ystwyth and a second river the Rheidol (which both reach the sea in the Aberystwyth area) to the mountains of Mid Wales and the coastal strip. The whole area is underpopulated by UK standards: the local population in Aberystwyth is no more than 20,000 even counting the large number of university students and the whole county of Ceredigion has only 75,000. Aberystwyth is arguably the most isolated town in Wales and England – some 70-80 miles from the nearest large towns of Shrewsbury, Wrexham or Swansea.
The central character in the films is DCI Mathias who appears to have been ‘exiled’ in Aberystwyth. He lives on his own in a caravan but has a wife and children in London – this back story is not filled out. He acts as if he is on his own, distant from the rest of his team. It is noticeable that in the English version of the films he is the only police officer who doesn’t speak Welsh (though he does in the Welsh language version.) Ceredigion is one of the parts of Wales where Welsh is the first language of up to half the population.
The physical isolation is enhanced by the climate and geomorphology. It takes time to get anywhere by car/truck on winding roads over hills and moors. The rail service is limited. It rains a lot. Added to this is the sense of the past which bears down on the present. There is an almost mythical Celtic past and a more recent past of mineral extraction/mining that has left a legacy of abandoned quarries and mines. Agriculture, partly on struggling hill farms, forestry and tourism form the economic base of the region. The first three stories are set in an isolated children’s home, a hill farm and an abandoned quarry.
I’ve seen comparisons being made to the Swedish TV series Wallander, but this is a much more isolated and rugged area than Ystad in Southern Sweden. The Iceland of the stories by Arnaldur Indriðason seems the best comparison as it is his books that are best known in English translation and one of them has been adapted for a successful international film, Myrin (Jar City, Iceland/Ger/Den 2006). The comparison throws up one interesting question. Jar City is a ‘national’ story in a country with a capital city but otherwise sparsely populated. Ceredigion is similarly ‘dominated’ by Aberystwyth but so far none of the stories in Hinterland have had any sense of a ‘national’ Welsh dimension – even though in cultural terms, Aberystwyth is a national centre housing the National Library of Wales. The University in Aberystwyth has also been largely absent though it plays a major role in the town. One similarity with Wallander is that each episode has a self-contained narrative as in a traditional series, though the background story remains ongoing and the second series ended with a form of cliffhanger centred on DCI Mathias.
One of the features of isolation is that a local police officer is less likely to be bothered by interference from senior officers based 100 miles away. However, in Hinterland there is a local police chief (Chief Superintendent) who seems to be the most underwritten character – and who initially proved to be simply an irritating presence, generally unsupportive and unsympathetic. In series two he became more obviously implicated in Mathias’ situation. The other ‘difference’ in this set of films is that there is no sense of ‘social space’ for the police team – no bar where they meet. In fact there have been few social places for anyone to meet. The narrative seems to comprise swift journeys into the hills to visit isolated crime scenes and then interrogations back in Aberystwyth. Somehow, the usual array of SOCO photographers and local constabulary to tape off the area materialise in the wilderness. Where do they come from? Hinterland looks and feels different to most urban-set dramas. Perhaps that is an attractive feature for overseas buyers? Wikipedia has a page for the Welsh version of the films with some discussion of overseas transmissions. Netflix seems to be the least clued-in buyer of the series and I’ve seen comments suggesting that they don’t know much about the Welsh language – getting the subtitling wrong?
After viewing the first nine episodes, it appears to me that the underlying narrative of what has happened to DCI Mathias’ marriage is not going to be resolved, nor is the domestic situation of his DI (Mared Rhys) played by Mali Rhys Harries. This is frustrating and takes something away from the individual episodes. The focus on the landscape remains and for me is the chief attraction of the series (along with the performances of the four actors playing the roles in the police team). I’m intrigued to discover that the 12 episodes have seen multiple DoPs, art designers etc. There are two directors and six writers so far – only the music remains in the hands of one person. Someone must be overseeing the ‘look’ of the series. Anyway, it works. I should also mention that the town is often shown late at night or early in the morning. Most of the time there is nobody about. Where most police shows go for a form of realism, Central Wales in this show seems very much an imagined world of isolation – beautiful and tragic isolation.
Here’s the trailer for the Welsh language version:
Art films, or more precisely foreign language art films, are struggling to find an audience in the UK. (Sight & Sound, February 2016 has an editorial bemoaning this situation and it was discussed in Keith’s post.) At the same time, the value of the videogames market keeps on increasing. It seems at least possible that some of those audiences who have stopped watching art films are now playing certain kinds of videogames. I hadn’t thought too much about making this connection until one of the guest critics on Radio 4’s Saturday Review (download here) remarked that certain kinds of videogames were for people who liked to work hard at ‘reading’ a story. It was probably Naomi Alderman (the novelist who writes about gaming for the Guardian), but all four reviewers of two videogames that have been successful in 2015 said that the experience was more like ‘work’ in that they had to take notes in attempting to construct a narrative. They compared playing videogames with both films and television – suggesting that TV, by comparison, was so ‘easy’ that if it were invented now there would be outrage about how it was rotting the brains of its audiences.
So, is this a useful observation? We need to be careful because there are so many variables in play here. First, it isn’t the so-called ‘specialised’ cinemas that are losing audiences. What they are doing is increasingly moving towards showing Hollywood blockbusters and Anglophone ‘quality films’. Audiences have stopped watching foreign language art films partly because they are difficult to find in cinemas. But they haven’t turned away from subtitles. On Sunday night Channel 4 started broadcasting a German language drama and has announced free streaming of several more series via its ‘Walter Presents’ offer (which looks very exciting). BBC4’s Danish/Swedish subtitled serial Broen ⎮⎮ Bron, which finished over Christmas, attracted on average 1.4 million UK viewers. The biggest audience for a foreign language film in UK cinemas in 2015 was not much more than 100,000 viewers.
We are constantly told that the videogames industry is bigger now than the film industry in value terms – and probably in terms of the number of players. Such comparisons are difficult to make. Games often cost much more to buy/rent than films (but probably provide better value in terms of hours of engagement). Videogaming also covers a wide range of different kinds of interactive experiences. I’m not able to compare them, but I suspect a game played on a phone while sitting on a train is a different proposition than the two games discussed on Saturday Review. One of these, Fallout, is a big budget blockbuster and the other, Her Story, is an ‘indie’ game. The reviewers found that both required ‘work’ to construct a narrative, but Her Story sounds nearest to the experience of art film, even though its potential narrative is closest to crime fiction, i.e. a supposedly ‘generic’ rather than ‘literary’ narrative.
I did once play computer games, back in the early 1990s. I eventually concluded that a) I wasn’t very good at it – I lacked certain skills and that b) I could also become addicted to certain kinds of relatively simple games. So I stopped. I realise that videogames are now much more sophisticated but I’m not really attracted – though I have read several compelling arguments about how they have helped advance ideas about narrative. The crucial question is not about the small group of dedicated cinephiles but about younger audiences who might enjoy videogames, subtitled TV dramas and foreign language art cinema. How should cinemas attract them back? How should we educate distributors and exhibitors so that they consider this audience and cater for it? Anyone got ideas?
Here’s the trailer for Her Story: