Saturday, October 08, 2011

Quel Dommage!

Here in the gulf between Doctor Who seasons, it's customary to review 'other stuff' and as it turns out we have a few things in the experiential archive to catch up on... First up, a spot of crime impassionale.

Some things are doomed by their advance press. I mean, how often has your entertainment appetite been whetted, your expectations been built up by a trailer? Pretty frequently, I would guess, since that’s the trailer’s job. And then there’s word of mouth, which is allegedly the best form of advertising. Any form of advertising is only good though if the product lives up to the hype, while if it doesn’t, well, the product itself will suffer in the comparison.

Poor Engrenages (aka Spiral). It never stood a chance.

No trailers came my way for this, but I’d heard excellent things about it. Not least of which was – courtesy of a friend – that it was like the French cousin of The Wire.

In fact, it bears such little relation it seems like one of those long lost relatives who only show up out of the woodwork hoping for a share of the inheritance. For one, there’s none of the complexity or social layering of the American show, albeit that there is a political angle to proceedings. Sure, plenty of the characters are fils des plages (sons of beaches) but I can’t think of any who are as brilliant (and even likeable) as so many of The Wire’s lowliest lowlifes. It’s a different bĂȘte altogether. As such, it’s unfair to judge it in those terms, but unfortunately my expectations had already been coloured. And I daresay some of my criticisms will have arisen from that accidental letdown that had nothing to do with the series itself.

So bear in mind through my ramblings, s’il vous plait, that the series is by no means terrible.

It’s well-acted. The direction lends the whole thing a suitably arthouse, suspenseful and occasionally haunting quality and it’s structured to deliver a clever dramatic upper cut at each episode end. It’s probably well-scripted, although my French falls far short of being able to tell that and the subtitles are frequently lifeless and drab. Then there’s episode six or seven where the subtitler fell asleep or something and allowed some painfully clumsy and lazy faux pas to litter the translations.

What it has in spades is grimness. Its depictions of crime scenes and autopsies are uncompromising and never fail to genuinely horrify. As a gritty realistic portrayal of police – and judicial - work in la belle France, it convinces. (For all I know.) While as a drama, for me, it ultimately fell un peu flat.

Trying to be objective and leaving Wire comparisons out of it, the key shortcomings for me lay in the cast of characters. (NB Not the actors, none of whom I could really fault.) The only one I had any empathy for was Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), the female detective heading up the various investigations. The chief prosecutor (Gregory Fitoussi) is a big wet blanket, far too easily manipulated by his wife and his parasitic pal Benoit (Guillaume Cramoisan). Both of whom, by the way, whinge and complain about their lot, despite the fact that they each got themselves into their respective messes. And here a measure of contrast with The Wire is called for, because these French criminals are the socially privileged sort, far far removed from the disadvantaged, disenfranchised communities of Baltimore. So hearing them moan when their hands are caught in the metaphorical cookie jar is a test of patience.

There’s a washed-up junkie detective (Thierry Godard) who I think we’re meant to sympathise with, but he has none of Jimmy McNulty’s redeeming charm. And a number of characters spend time being enigmatic and impenetrable for no other reason I can fathom than they’re in a French production – like the bitch lawyer who buries evidence of a man’s false rape conviction because, er, well I guess because she’s a bitch. Possibly there were some subtleties there I missed, but they’re easily missable when there’s no emotional connection to the characters. There’s an aloofness and a distance to almost everyone - apart from the victims, who are, alas, generally encountered on a mortuary slab or mutilated and dumped on some patch of the city’s wasteland.

Storywise, while the tone is definitely one of mystery, the actuality is somewhat lacking and left me strangely unsatisfied. As initially compelling as the central case was, all leads appear to dry up shortly after the victim’s diary is appropriated by the criminals and the investigation largely dead-ends (or cul-de-sacs), until it’s left to bleating Benoit to fess up and the fate of the poor girl with her face bashed in is finally revealed to us in flashback. Rendering the whole thing a lot less spirally and less complex than it would have you believe.

We end, inevitably and perhaps predictably, on a shot of another unidentifiable corpse as a lead-in to the second series. But I can’t decide whether it’s promising better or more of the same.

At the very least, now knowing what to expect, a second series will stand a good chance of being judged entirely on its own merits. So I may be persuaded to give it that opportunity.

Until then, I can't be sure how much of my sense of dissatisfaction is down to comparison and how much is down to a simple matter of taste.

C'est la view.


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