French connection

Engrenages/Spiral, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014-5

Review by Peter Hulm

This French series, rescued from oblivion by Britain's non-commercial BBC chain, puts to shame the U.K.'s social-drama cop series such as Luther, and even such self-promoting series like The Wire — at least in showing how easily such dramas can be put together, if the will is there.

Spiral/Engrenages is by no means perfect — too many cop cars racing round Paris streets for one thing

But its gritty feel, with no concessions to the Paris of tourist and Woody Allen's loving imagination, tackles contemporary social issues of the toughest sort — the capital as a cesspit of illegal human trafficking, political corruption and cover-ups, corrupt and greedy lawyers, drug-addicted police officers, all with dysfunctional lives.

La belle vie never looked so seedy or unsatisfying.

Without visible effort, however, Spiral knits together the chicanery that runs through official French society (at least in this environment) and wordlessly explains why the French often don't trust the police, their magistrates, the legal system, or their governments.

The scandals of French politics over the past three decades — from Mitterrand, Le Pen and Sarkozy to Hollande and co — seem only to bear out the sour view of French public life depicted by the series co-creators Alain Clert and his daughter Alexandra (a lawyer).

Another major participant Guy-Patrick Sainderichin is the son of journalists, while an anti-terrorist judge Gilbert Thiel serves as technical adviser to the show and appears in series 4.

Grubbier than The Bridge

Caroline Proust as the chief police officer of interest is even grubbier than The Bridge's Danish inspector and as unsympathetic a personality.

Grégory Fitoussi may be more handsome than any magistrate or lawyer than you have ever met, but we learn how his good looks betray him as much as smooth his path through the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, his character runs up against Audrey Fleurot's, as mercenary a beauty as you could ever hope not to meet in the law court or chambers. The plot perfectly justified the use of two pin-up protagonists.

Philippe Duclos, playing an honest though seemingly unfeeling investigative magistrate, gives us an immediately sympathetic portrayal of put-upon rectitude that French film-makers seem to dish up as easily as croissants.

Sharply drawn

The characters are so sharply drawn (without being caricatures) that just listing them and the actors who play them recalls the plots of the series — Thierry Godard as a troubled cop with a drug problem, Elisabeth Macocco as the magistrate's court clerk, Guillaume Cramoisan as the crooked childhood friend of Fitoussi's character, Samir Boitard as an undercover police officer, Scali Delpeyrat as the Justice Minister's private secretary, Nicolas Moreau as a corrupt local mayor, and Jérôme Huguet as an extremist.

It's also typical of this French series that finding anything more than the skimpiest biographical details of the actors and series makers requires some determined snuffling around the Internet.

The series won the 2015 Emmy for an international drama, but stories, acting or direction rarely play a part in such awards: it could have been a nod to the beleaguered BBC for getting the French to make a second series when the first attracted only an audience of 200,000 on BBC4.

Grisly for the hell of it?

Occasionally viewers complained that the plot shifts and acting in the first series were "dubious" and found the style annoying. It was certainly grisly. Often it seemed staged just to grip viewers at the start of the show.

But viewers also recognized it had been relegated to a graveyard slot (typical BBC schizophrenia?).

At this distance, it seems hardly worth noting that the French title refers to 'wheels within wheels' (literally chains, imbrications or 'works' as 'spanner in the works') rather than a spiral. Wheels of Fortune might have been a better translation if there wasn't already a game show. This managed to be a police show that didn't get bogged down in the life of its investigators to the exclusion of the social issues its characters had to deal with (vide Luther).

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