Sacré bleu! When did the French get better than us at TV?

There once seemed to be an unspoken agreement that telly was one of Britain’s great cultural exports, writes Ed Cumming. Yet the likes of ‘Call My Agent!’, ‘Lupin’ and ‘Le Bureau’ have put that old chestnut to bed. What happened?

By Ed Cumming

The most upsetting development in TV this year has not been the BBC’s Olympic coverage, hard as it has been to be deprived of 24-hour kayaking. Nor was it the ending of Line of Duty, with its ominous implication that the series might run forever without ever finding the last of the bent coppers. Or Emily in Paris being nominated for the “Best Comedy” Emmy.

No, the only truly blood-curdling realisation has been that the French are making better TV than us. Probably the best comedy of the past few years is Call My Agent, which stars Camille Cottin as a talent agent forced to dig her stars, played by real-life actors, out of increasingly ridiculous scrapes while managing their own chaotic personal lives. It is French.

Definitely the best thriller of the past few years is The Bureau – in its home nation Le Bureau des Legendes – a gripping spy drama in which characters roam around the world protecting national interests while managing their own chaotic personal lives. In its depiction of technology, double-crossing and harsh realpolitik of modern espionage, it is closer to the spirit of Le Carré than anything we have managed lately, including adaptations of Le Carré. It is also French.

Camille Cottin Comes To Cannes With ‘Stillwater’ and ‘Our Men’

‘Call My Agent’ Star Camille Cottin Comes To Cannes With Two High-Profile Films – ‘Stillwater’ and ‘Our Men’

Camille Cottin is having quite a year. As more and more folks locked at home tuned into Call My Agent! (Dix pour cent), the Netflix series in which she stars, her profile has risen internationally. The comedy-drama about the trials and tribulations of a Parisian talent agency already had helped her score jobs in Hollywood films pre-pandemic, and now she’s definitely someone to keep an eye on as she continues to build an enviable cross-border résumé.

The Paris native, who spent ages 12 to 17 living in London when her family moved for her stepdad’s job, is appearing in two films in Cannes this year including Directors’ Fortnight closing title Our Men (Mon légionnaire) by Rachel Lang, and Tom McCarthy’s out-of competition drama Stillwater.

Both of those films tackle serious subject matter (more on that later), which may seem out of character for an actress who broke out locally in the Canal+ hidden-camera sketch series Connasse (literally translated: Bitch) in which she inserted herself into daily life situations and turned the tables on unsuspecting Parisians (one notorious episode featured her making penis shaped balloon animals at a children’s birthday party). Connasse spawned a feature film in 2015, The Parisian BitchPrincess of Hearts, also a hidden-camera comedy, which saw her travel to London in an attempt to marry Prince Harry.

Cottin got her initial start in the theater, while also studying English, and did everything from the comedies of Feydeau to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Though she also played the antagonist in Season 3 of BBC drama Killing Eve, many of her French film roles have been in comedies. Unsurprisingly, Cottin prefers not to be defined by genre. “I think comedy, like drama, can elicit emotion,” she says. “That’s what I’m looking for. For me, it’s about rhythm. I see comedy like accelerated drama. Chaplin is dramatic, but it goes so fast that we laugh at it.”

Call My Agent! straddles both worlds, just as Cottin is doing in her career. Her character, the tightly-wound Andrea, she says, “is not a funny person; it’s super rare that she laughs. She’s always concentrated, always stressed. She spends her life trying to solve problems. It’s really the situations that are funny and she’s always getting tripped up. I try to keep a small distance where we know we are playing, that’s also part of comedy, so it’s a miniscule bit of complicity with the audience. We fully embrace the situations which are sometimes dramatic, but it’s also the way they are treated that makes comedy.”

Continue reading “Camille Cottin Comes To Cannes With ‘Stillwater’ and ‘Our Men’”

Falling Back in Love With French via Netflix

French Netflix

How shows like “Lupin” and “Call My Agent!” have inspired me to pursue French fluency.

Growing up with a francophile mother, French has always been part of my life. My special stuffed animal was Babar the elephant, and weekends were spent singing the translated version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with a group of children who were far more multilingual than me. In college, I spent a year studying in Paris, living with a host family and their three-legged dog, Colonel Moutard. Still, like many adults who spent their school years learning a foreign language, my opportunities to speak it dwindled after graduation, and so did my confidence. Continue reading “Falling Back in Love With French via Netflix”

What to Watch After You’ve Finished ‘Lupin’

If you want to go deeper, and darker, into what la belle France has to offer, here are some shows you’ll want to stream next.

Caroline Proust as Laure Berthaud in France's Spiral.

French TV is having a bit of a moment. That’s mostly thanks to Netflix’s Lupin, the soigné gentleman-caper series starring Omar Sy that debuted on the service earlier this month and promptly swept The Queen’s Gambit crowd off its feet. (And not just them: Lupin attracted the attention of some 70 million subscribers in January, according to Netflix, more than have watched BridgertonEmily in Paris, even—mon dieu—Tiger King.) And no wonder: Lupin is zippy, light, irresistible, the kir royale of TV. (Call My Agent is also seducing the Champagne-streaming set with its Parisian blend of urbane workplace comedy and atomized sex appeal.)

I’m a French TV partisan. I love this. But I have to say, especially when it comes to Lupin, I feel a bit left out. The French do crime better than anyone (except maybe the Scandis), and Sy is incredibly appealing, but Lupin has too much romanticism and frictionlessness to satisfy proper crime fans like me. It’s escapism—nothing wrong with that. But if you want to go deeper, and a bit darker, into what la belle France has to offer, here are some shows you’ll want to stream next.

The Bureau

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France’s hit spy series is more John le Carré than Homeland—and thank goodness. Realism and humanity prevail in this complex but absorbing drama, which has been helmed by Éric Rochant through five seasons. (The recent season finale was turned over to celebrated filmmaker Jacques Audiard.) It’s part workplace drama, part character study, part globe-hopping suspense series as DGSE agents infiltrate jihadist groups and tangle with the CIA. The lead, Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays a superspy code-named Malotru, is a fascinating study in French masculine ideals—handsome, wounded, lovelorn, stubbornly brilliant, kind of short. Hugely recommend.

How to Watch: Stream on Sundance Now

Spiral

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Another long-running classique of French TV, Spiral takes the cop-and-justice beats of Law & Order and the subtlety and knottiness of The Wire and combines them in a deeply satisfying police procedural. Lupin makes the French capital look glossy and alluring; Spiral takes off the filters and shows Paris’s grimy side. The crime scenes can be gruesome and macabre, but this is not a sensationalist show, and its leads, particularly Caroline Proust as the police captain Laure Berthaud, are ruggedly human and flawed in all the right ways. Spiral has been around since 2005 and is now in its eighth and final season, but don’t be deterred. Start at the beginning, and you will be drawn right in.

The Chalet

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Netflix’s The Chalet

If the above options seem a bit sober minded, try the ludicrously fun suspense thriller The Chalet, in which a group of (attractive, Gallic) friends arrives at an Alpine hotel near a small, curiously abandoned French village. There is a hooded killer in the woods who begins to take the wedding group down one by one. The proceedings are more Agatha Christie than gruesome slasher, and a double-timeline structure keeps the storytelling complex, with long-simmering secrets gradually revealed. Pulpy and propulsive, this is one to save for a Saturday binge.

How to Watch: Stream on Netflix
Continue reading “What to Watch After You’ve Finished ‘Lupin’”

Call My Agent: the French TV hit that viewers and actors adore

The comedy, whose fourth series hits Netflix this week, shows France’s TV can match its film

Fast approaching 50 and fed up after two exhausting decades at Artmedia, the top talent agency in Paris, Dominique Besnehard decided, one day in 2005, that he would quite like to turn his hand to producing something of his own.

“At the time,” Besnehard told Le Monde, “Desperate Housewives was all over the telly, a huge success. I just thought, with a couple of colleagues, we could maybe make a series a bit like that, but about the job we do for a living.”

Call My Agent, whose fourth series starts on Netflix this week, is now a huge hit – and has, along with Spiral and The Bureau, two other acclaimed series, fully and perhaps finally disproved the dictum that France is as bad at TV drama as it is good at cinema.

“France is really benefiting from a global trend in TV series towards strong, original, local stories, anchored in their territory and free of American and British norms,” said Laurence Herszberg, director of the international Series Mania festival.

The show, she said, was so big because it was “set in a milieu we don’t know well but would like to; because the agents are sympathetic and passionate and people like them even more than the guest stars; because it’s very French – it’s in Paris, it has office love affairs … And because it’s on Netflix.”

Call My Agent, whose French title is Dix pour Cent (for the 10% fee French agents charge actors), draws between 3 and 4 million viewers on public broadcaster France 2 and is available around the world on the streaming service.

Continue reading “Call My Agent: the French TV hit that viewers and actors adore”

In conversation: A French and American take on Emily in Paris

Emily in Paris is everywhere: causing people to rage on social media, making us dream of booking tix to Paris again (someday!) and paused on TV screens, as people WhatsApp their friends to moan about how unrealistic Emily’s (Lily Collins’) stratospheric social media success is – who gets 200 new followers after posting a photo of baked goods? – and then swooning over how gorgeous Frenchie Lucas Bravo (Emily’s neighbour, Gabriel), is.

Critics – in the US, UK and France – have complained that it’s clichéd, ridiculous, lacks diversity and is deeply culturally offensive. However, it’s also totally addictive, even if people are hate-watching it, with a viewership that includes teens, their parents, and every Sex and the City fan who was excited about the premise of sex – and Pat Field styling – in another city.

For those who haven’t seen it, Emily in Paris centres around Chicagoan Emily, who gets sent to Paris to work for a top French marketing agency when her boss falls pregnant. Clueless about the language and culture, she makes a series of faux pas that sees her branded a plouc (a hick) and ringarde (basic). But Paris is soooo beautiful and Emily’s boss, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) and friend, Camille (Camille Razat), are soooo stylish, and the men are soooo dreamy…

One reason that Emily’s got everyone talking is that it touches on the big cultural divide between France and America. Who better to discuss the show then a Frenchwoman (CW founder Eleonore Dresch) and an American, kids’ editor, Jennifer Barton.
Continue reading “In conversation: A French and American take on Emily in Paris”