Tagged: French TV

Engrenages (Spiral, France 2005-2020)

Laure (Caroline Proust) and Gilou (Thierry Godard) are at the centre of the dance of partners in Engrenages

Adieu Engrenages! After 86 episodes spread over 16 years, my favourite TV series has come to an end. I’m not going to spoil the ending since all 86 episodes are on iPlayer in the UK and I’m sure there are still fans working their way through Series 8. I wrote about Engrenages when Series 5 ended in the UK in 2015. I’ve only followed the show since Series 5 so I can’t claim fandom as such. With all the episodes available, however, I have gone back to look at the opening episode. The change in the appearance of the actors over 15 years is quite remarkable. It looks to me as if the show must have been gruelling to work on – they look so fresh-faced and young in 2005. Nick Lacey has suggested to me that the shooting style changed after Series 1, possibly because it was a surprise hit and the makers then felt that they had a chance to re-envision the approach. In fact it was an enormous hit that perhaps put pressure on the production team.

In Serial 8, laure has to work more closely with Ali (Tewfilk Jallab)

I’m not going to repeat my 2015 post here and I will try to go back and watch the other series I’ve missed. Here I simply want to offer an observation about the final series. The long-running cop show has been a feature of US TV for as long as I can remember. In the 1950s Jack Webb starred in 276 episodes of Dragnet, in the 1980s Hill Street Blues lasted 144 episodes and Cagney & Lacey lasted 126 episodes. These were all forms of the police procedural deploying generic conventions not so different from those of Engrenages. Similar shows were produced in the UK and IMDb suggests that there were nearly 800 episodes of Z Cars between 1962 and 1978 – but nearly two thirds were wiped by the BBC. I’m most interested in the concept of ‘seriality’, the idea that that all the episodes in one series are constructed around a single primary crime fiction narrative. All the previous cop shows had recurring elements each week which were subordinate to the single narrative ‘episode story’. American TV developed the idea of a ‘narrative arc’ covering an entire season, sometimes with a ‘season finale’, but I don’t think it was until the early 2000s that the genuine serial form emerged especially in European crime dramas. I haven’t watched US TV for several years and I’ve never seen any of the US cable shows which developed the ‘long form narrative’ so I’m not making any comparisons here, except to note that US shows have generally had much longer ‘seasons’, with more than twenty episodes on occasions. For me the changes came with Nordic crime fiction drama serials such as The Killing and The Bridge. The Killing serial 1 was the key change for me with its twenty episodes of 57 minutes when it ran in 2007 in Denmark, but subsequent serials 2 and 3 both ran for ten episodes. Ten episodes seems about right to sustain interest. Engrenages has shifted from eight to twelve and then back to ten episodes for Serial 8. I’m interested here in how the narratives have been constructed across eight serials and in particular I want to investigate the principal recurring characters or rather ‘character functions’ across the serials.

Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) is the third central character throughout 8 serials. In the last serial she has a closer relationship with Éric Edelman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing)

The two central characters are Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and ‘Gilou’ Escoffier (Thierry Godard) with Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) as the only other ever present across every episode (though Gilou is missing from one). Laure is the leader of a local crime team – the equivalent of a CID team from a local police station in the UK and Gilou is one of her two deputies in a total team of around five. Joséphine is an ambitious and rule-breaking avocat who appears in court but because the French judicial system is different, she doesn’t really correspond to an English barrister. Joséphine always has a sparring partner, initially Pierre Clément (Fregory Fitoussi) and latterly Éric Edelman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). For the first seven serials the ‘Investigating Judge’ (not that dissimilar to the District Attorney in the US or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland) is Juge Roban (Philippe Duclos) but in the final serial he has retired and Juge Lucie Bourdieu (Clara Bonnet) replaces him. As a young woman, Juge Bourdieu is a possibly disruptive figure as we will see. Finally we have the characters who fill other senior police roles. The most consistent of these is Commissaire Brémont (Bruno Debrandt) who heads a Serious Crimes Unit – he is also the father of Laure’s baby daughter in the later episodes. Also in the later episodes, Laure has a new local boss, Arnaud Beckriche (Valentin Merlet) and a new deputy, Ali Amrani (Tewfilk Jallab).

Juge Lucie Bourdieu (Clara Bonnet) is a new face in Serial 8

I’m going to refer to the last episode here, but I think my comments will also refer to earlier episodes. My feeling is that Engrenages, as fits the various meanings of the title – gears, gearing, cogs, connections etc. – is constructed like a kind of whirling dance, a bit like one of those Scottish country dances where couples take part in what are effectively ensemble dances where first you are all together but at various points you pair off with someone else and at other times dance in a group. This may sound crazy but bear with me. The characters outlined above all work in the policing and judicial systems and by necessity they have to have relationships with each other to do their jobs. But there is also another set of characters, usually changing for each serial, the criminals. In Serial 8 there are three criminal groups – a gang based around a father and son, a drug smuggling operation and a group of of young Moroccan migrants aged under 14 who are used for ‘minor’ crimes by various parties.

My conception of the Serial 8 narrative would be interweaving pairs of characters. Laure holds the whole narrative together because she has working relationships with most of the other characters. Her problem throughout the serial is her long-standing relationship with Gilou. He is now in prison as a result of his ‘unconventional’ policing methods and his refusal to ‘name names’ – he takes the rap for colleagues. In the serial he gets out of prison as part of a deal to become a ‘plant’ in the gang of a major criminal. Nobody must know he is undercover so Laure is not supposed to know or to attempt to see him. But she still cares for him, can she keep away? What is worse is that Gilou is working for Brémont. Laure still has her job to do and in the past she would be working closely with the investigating judge. But the new judge doesn’t trust Laure and therefore Laure finds herself having to work through her boss – who then complicates things by getting involved in a sexual relationship with Lucie. Since she doesn’t have Gilou at hand, Laure finds herself working more closely with Ali (who unbeknownst to her is seeking to join another team in a promotion). Finally, Laure will once again become involved with Joséphine since she becomes the lawyer for the young Moroccan boy who Laure’s team have found is a suspect/witness in the death of another young Moroccan. It is this case that will allow Laure to become involved in the much bigger investigation which involves drug smuggling and the gang that Gilou is now part of. But in doing so she will find herself potentially at odds with Brémont’s Major Crime Unit and the Drugs Squad, not to mention the Armed Response Unit if the big showdown comes. Laure can’t pick and choose which aspects of the investigation to focus on, the investigating judge makes those decisions. On the other hand, Laure is very smart. It’s not until the last couple of episodes that we fully understand what will have to happen when all three cases come together and the major problem will be how will the police operation catch the bad guys without arresting Gilou as a gang member. The last episode is brilliantly staged I think.

Kool Shen, the gang boss who Gilou targets in prison

While Laure is ‘dancing’ her way through encounters with all the other characters, they too are pairing/squaring up to their counterparts. Two worth picking up are those between Laure and Ali and Joséphine and Eric. The writers found a way to bring Laure and Ali together as teammates just as they found a balance between the impulsive actions of Joséphine and the more calculated actions of Eric. What I really enjoy about Engrenages is how the script is built around the genre conventions of the procedural but is also deeply-rooted in the emotions of the characters. I’ve also found it refreshing that the serials have gradually developed what feels like a genuine engagement with the diversity of Parisian culture. Ali as a character could be seen as simply there to represent the Maghrebi population in the city but his character has several functions. In one sense he represents a more conventional career-orientated younger police officer compared to Laure’s more emotional/committed approach. But he also finds himself caught between cultures and experiences with both the young Moroccans and the dodgy owner of a phone shop. Particularly intriguing are the interrogation scenes when he seems to rely on an interpreter at some points as if his own Arabic is not sufficient to understand the young suspects. On the other hand he is marked by senior officers as a rising star ready for promotion. When he cracks under the strain he’ll learn that on Laure’s team the motto is like the Three Musketeers, one for all and all for one.

The finale, the end of Serial 8, was just about right for me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I’m pleased with what I got. I know there will be different opinions and that’s fine. Nothing will replace Engrenages in my affections and I’ll miss Joséphine as much as Laure and Gilou. But I’d love to see some of the shows that the two women most responsible for the success of Engrenages are producing now. I know that the creative team is very large so I’m just picking out Alexandra Clert and Anne Landois as ‘creator’ and ‘showrunner’ for the majority of episodes. I remember a report of a discussion in New York in which Alexandra Clert was asked questions alongside the showrunner of Mad Men. The event was titled ‘Women, Work and Television’. Clert shocked her American audience by stating: “I’m not a feminist at all, I don’t share the ideology of parity.” Because I don’t watch US TV these days and I gave up on Mad Men after the first episode, I’m not well-placed to make any comparisons. The Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner responded to Clert’s statement by suggesting “Your show is full of feminist philosophy that you take for granted, which is that these women have jobs” and that this was possibly a case of a different generation i.e. Alexandra Clert was taking for granted what other women had fought for. I don’t think this is an explanation. French and American culture are simply different. There is a great deal to think about in Engrenages. I’d better try and watch those early serials before I come to any conclusions. I’ve also just discovered a very interesting take on the show’s representation issues, especially its depiction of ‘peoples of colour’ which points out how over 15 years France has changed considerably. How has Engrenages responded? There is work to do.

Credit: Caroline Dubois / Son et Lumière / Canal+, Paris Match, 6th June 2020
This image shows the other members of the team, (from left) Jean-Pierre Colombi as ‘JP”, Lionel Erdogan as Tom, Valentine Merlet as Békriche, Ali, Gilou, Laure and Kija King as Nico (from ‘Engrenages: A Microcosm of Modern France’)

Witnesses (Les témoins, France 2014- )

Sandra (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker) find a bus filled with frozen male corpses as passengers at the start of WITNESSES season 2

Witnesses is a global crime/mystery series in the now familiar long-form narrative format. It has inevitably been compared to various other examples of what is becoming a global model, derived from the success of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the Scandinavian serials, the second season was broadcast on BBC4 in the UK ending a few weeks ago. (Season 1 was broadcast on Channel 4.) The key common element is a pair of police investigators in which the woman is the lead figure. What makes Witnesses ‘different’, at least in the first two seasons/series/serials, is the setting and the inclusion of some of the tropes of the horror film.

The location is Northern France. The police team is based in Lille and the action seems to range across the whole Nord-Pas de Calais region with an emphasis on the coast in both series. In fact, the action spreads all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel and Granville in Normandy several hundred kilometres away. The distances are so great that they detract from the realism of some of the plot devices, but conversely heighten the fantasy elements. Some of the Scandinavian narratives make use of similar settings but it occurred to me that Witnesses might also share something with the Welsh serial Hinterland. A second possible reference for me was the stories of Fred Vargas whose crime novels have the same mystery elements and sometimes use similar locations (e.g. by the coast or in rural Normandy). Although Vargas has been adapted in France, I’m not aware of any overseas sales.

The two central characters are Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker). Sandra is the typical ‘maverick’ cop and Justin is the more stable partner who is generally in the background , but whose personal life is also explored. Each of the two seasons so far features a similar credit sequence with Sandra striding towards the camera along a ‘boardwalk’ past a row of bathing huts. She then reaches a dilapidated hut which blocks her path and she opens its doors to reveal a fantasy figure. In the first season this is a wolf (see below) and in the second three strange children. The music in the title sequence by the UK ‘trip-hop’ artist Tricky with Francesca Belmonte has an ethereal tone which underlines the potential fantasy of the stories. The song’s title is ‘We Don’t Die’ and the lyrics fit the stories so well I’m intrigued to see what the writer-creators Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar (who also directs) will come up with next. The first story begins with the discovery of the corpses of people recently buried but now dug up and arranged in family groups in public places such as a show house on a new estate. As Sandra investigates she uncovers a connection to her former boss in Lille who has become something of a local celebrity.

In Season 2, the story begins with the discovery of a bus parked on a country road. Inside the bus are 15 frozen corpses of men who disappeared some time ago. Eventually the investigation will uncover a complex interweaving of stories which will eventually entrap Sandra herself and in which she will team up with a woman who herself disappeared and is then discovered three years later, unable to remember what happened to her. This is Catherine Keemer, rather confusingly played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot, the rather tempestuous lawyer from Engrenages (Spiral). My confusion was because Series 6 of Engrenages followed Witnesses a week later on BBC4 and I found myself ‘catching up’ on Witnesses while watching the first episodes of Engrenages. Sandra and Catherine end up sleuthing together in Witnesses and a rather stylish couple they make – two tall, slim, thirty-somethings with flowing tresses and a similar dress sense.

Catherine (Audrey Fleurot) and Sandra (Marie Dompnier) together

Apart from the characterisation around Sandra and Catherine, there two noticeable aspects of this second narrative which distinguish it from similar series. First are the aesthetics, dominated by occasional uses of aerial shots of the coast and forests of the region, the cinematography in general and the use of music, the overall effect of which is to create a sense of mystery and unease. Ironically, there is a sense of the romantic and the gothic, even when action takes place around a wind farm. The mystery/horror tropes are signified in several ways, all of which take us into the complex plotting around the history of an orphanage located on Mont Saint-Michel. This is a great location (and a world heritage site). The best recent orphanage narrative is arguably El orfanato (Spain 2007) and this one uses some of the same tropes with drawings by children and photographs from some time ago. The children seem to have been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur. The focus on children also draws in both Catherine and Sandra. Catherine is close to her eldest child, a young teenage daughter and Sandra has two younger daughters. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the links seem clear as well as the dangers for the two women. I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these kinds of crime narratives share sometimes quite specific plot ideas and details with others released around the same time. Witnesses reminded me of elements in both Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (2017) and the UK TV series The Fall (2013- ). Witnesses is a female-centred narrative created, written and directed by men. That’s just an observation, but I’m now intrigued by Engrenages 6 in which Audrey Fleurot is again a leading character in a narrative with Caroline Proust as top-billed – but with a largely male supporting cast. Gender is clearly an issue in the episodes I’ve seen so far and perhaps it’s time to think again about gender and crime fiction?

I enjoyed Witnesses but I think it was too long (8 x 1 hour episodes) and too complicated. By the end I had forgotten elements of the first two episodes and I’m not sure I fully appreciated the narrative resolution. The first season was only six episodes and that seemed right.

The Bureau (Le bureau des légendes, France 2015 – )

bdlposter

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.