With a 12 new episodes of Spiral being filmed in Paris at the moment, Europe’s Best Website reminds you that it was there at the beginning with Ricky Young’s 2013 billet doux to Paris’ finest
Reasons why the French remake of Star Wars failed #1. The trash compactor scene.
BBC Four Scando-drama just doesn’t do it for me.
A shocking notion to many – what, you don’t like to spend your Saturday nights watching thick blocks of oft-rudimentary police procedural drenched in existential gloom as if that’s interesting in and of itself? Well, no. Put it this way, if noted idiot Emma Kennedy can write a cash-in book about something, then I want no part of it.
The overseas drama that kicked off the trend for exotic coppers doing exotic police-work is back for a fourth series this Saturday, however, and I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s dirty, it’s brutal, it’s sexy and it’s French. The BBC calls it Spiral, but everyone else, including Europe’s Best Website, calls it Engrenages. So let’s pull up a chair, sit on that chair, realise that chair is in the interrogation room of a dingy Parisian police station, and let’s get punched repeatedly in the face by an angry foreign policeman.
Thwack! Yeah, that’s right, you’re in custody and you’re in handcuffs, but that was a punch in the face! Thwack! That was another one! And see this? This is a third! And it’s coming your way RIGHT NOW, unless you tell me where the drugs are. No? Okay. Thwack! See? I wasn’t kidding.
Engrenages first appeared in 2005 on the French cable channel Canal+, and found its way to BBC Four a year later. It clearly tickled something or somebody at the Beeb, as they entered into a co-production deal, and we got series two and three in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Now the latest series is upon us, and the everyday story of a tight-knit Parisian CID squad is yours to enjoy, so here’s a little primer to get you up to speed, MostlyFilm style. Which is like Gangnam Style, but with slightly less trotting.
Forget the comforting little fetishes of the police dramas that you’re used to. The tape machine on the desk in The Bill. The whiteboard in Homicide. The ever-present risk of seeing Sipowicz’s bulging nutsack in NYPD Blue etc. There’s no homely WPC offering you a reassuring cup of tea in the cells – Engrenages is a procedural that could be used as a training manual for the North Korean military. If you get into trouble in Paris, it’s made perfectly clear that falling headlong into the French judicial system entails very little in the way of comfort.
It’s a subtly confusing watch at first. The police and the lawyers and the judges all seem to have very different relationships from what you’re used to on British or American cop shows. The judges appear to have crazy investigative powers, the lawyers are ordering the cops around all the time, and the cops will slap you soon as look at you. Some of the precise working arrangements remain nebulous to me still, even going into the fourth series, but it throws the viewer into an immediately alien-feeling world.
Talking of which, this isn’t the Paris you know from your city-breaks. There’s no promenading down the Boulevard Haussmann here. The north-east Paris of Engrenages is all narrow and dirty streets, crushing traffic, sinister banlieues, rubbish-strewn drug corners and pulsating, multi-ethnic menace. It does for the city’s glamorous image what The Shield does for LA, which is apt, because Vic Mackey’s mired-in-the-dirt crew is probably the nearest reachable comparison to Captain Laure Berthaud and her squad in the 2nd DPJ.
As the show has progressed, the emphasis has gone from case-of-the-week stories to concentrating on season-long arcs in the modern fashion, (although quirkily Gallic who- or why-dunnits do crop up from time to time) all of which are dealt with by our gang in manners that range from grudgingly above-board to shockingly illegal.
(A note for box-set people, and yes, you know who you are. The show’s format was in place from the beginning, but watching the first series after coming to it later, as I did, is jarring. Now-dated stylistic tics abound (that speed-up/slow-down effect that everyone loved for six months mid-00’s, unpleasant crash-zooms in scene changes etc) but both it and the hysterical edge to the drama settle down by the end of S1. You could easily give it a miss and start with S2. To Amazon with you!)
Let’s take a few moments to bring you up to speed with the six regulars, each of which has been with the show since day one:
Captain Laure Berthaud is a faded fast-tracker who is by turns stressed, angry, tired, beaten-up, unlucky-in-love, devious, clever, funny, loyal, stubborn, driven, lonely, depressed and, because of all of that, sometimes prone to feats of dunderheaded ineptness. I ascribe all those adjectives to her, not because I want to give the writers credit for such a rich and multi-layered character, but because ‘she’s fucking insane’ would be a little too easy. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – an unreliable, maverick cop on a telly show who sometimes gets results? How original, etc.
Fair do’s, I’d say, but Caroline Proust’s unshowy commitment to the less-than-ladylike Laure makes you care for and worry about the little nutcase, even if she always looks as if she needs to be hosed down and packed off on a spa weekend.
Still, you’d be stressed too if you had this pair as your backup. Firstly, Lt Gilles “Gilou” Escoffier, a little ball of drug-taking, whoring energy who is both Laure’s oldest friend and her greatest professional liability. Entire episodes can revolve around sorting out his fuck-ups, but on the flip-side, he and Laure’s intense and unusual bond has always been fascinating to watch, and besides, he’s really, really good at slapping suspects. He calmed down a bit in series three, becoming a slightly more stable sidekick, but he’s never more than a couple of pastis away from another dropped clanger.
Lt. Frédéric “Tintin” Fromentin is the traditional by-the-book copper of the show, or as near as you can get when the book is ‘Facial Punching: The French Police Method’. Less impulsive and antsy than Gilou, he’s the reliable family man who doesn’t really want to get involved in all the DPJ’s underhand shit, but does it anyway then bitches about it.
There’s a revolving door of other police types, most lasting a season before disappearing, but let us move on to the legal eagles.
Actually, less a legal eagle and more a legal cartoon crane, we have the Investigating Judge François Roban. Hovering above everybody as a sort of one-man Crown Prosecution Service, he gives the okay for warrants, points the police down various routes and deals with the political side to the investigations. He’s a strange one, though. Odd fish the world over point at this guy and say ‘hoo boy, what a weirdo’. His love of justice has beaten out everything else from his life until all that remains is a walking shell made up of tics and quirks, his at-times hugely misguided working loyalty to and confidence in Berthaud being the most endearing.
To be fair to Roban, he did spend a good bit of last series getting laid with an old flame, but that went down the pan when his ethics had the ardour-dampening side-effect of driving her son to an early grave. He’s *that* much of a fun guy.
But he’s getting on a bit, and who does he have waiting in the wings? Assistant Investigating Judge Pierre Clément (played by Grégory Fitoussi off of Mr. Selfridge, brooding French hottie fans!), who’s not perhaps the most essential of the crew, but he’s usually got a bit of story going on, and even spent a series providing an uncharacteristic spark of romance for Laure, although she probably was a bit too smelly for his immaculate self-image in the long term. Although how the series hiatus will have left his most recent plot – quitting the Bar in a fit of handsome pique and going into private practice with amoral lawyer Joséphine Karlsson – is anyone’s guess.
You see how I said ‘amoral lawyer Joséphine Karlsson’ like it was no big thing there? It is a big thing.
Karlsson has had all manner of business with our crew over the three series so far, and it generally hinges on her being a total, total bastard. Sure, she gets away with a lot because she looks like a gazelle made of cushions, but she’s a scheming, money-obsessed, hard-as-nails bastard, who only escaped a gangland revenge-killing at the start of S3 thanks to an inconveniently jammed pistol. She’s that good at pissing people off, and if you’re not pissed off with her by the end of the first episode, I’ll eat my chapeau.
There’s also all the usual mixed-bag of recurring characters that a show like this gathers over time, including one man who looks so very French it hurts…
… but as we ended S3 with an exhausted, frustrated, on-edge-of-breakdown, rule-breaking female cop having executed the season’s Big Bad while not caring about the professional consequences (hey, The Killing finale? Can Engrenages have its plot back, btw? Tak!) I can’t wait to see what the new series has in store. There will be plenty of juicy, prurient murders. There will be lots of really quite expertly-filmed-and-paced tailings and chases around the Paris suburbs. There will be mind-bending machinations by the parade of back-stabbing pricks in the law offices. There will be people from every stop on the good-looking train pouting, coupling, arguing and punching each other in the way only French people can.
There won’t be endless, pointless fucking Media Guardian-fuelled jaw-jaw about some god-awful knitwear, I can guarantee you that.
Ricky posts on the Tweeter. But then again so does everyone.
Engrenages (Spiral) Series 4 – Saturday 9th February 2013, BBC4, 9pm (Ep1) & 10pm (Ep2)