Marseille Recap: Pinball City


Straw Man
Season 1 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Benoît Magimel as Lucas Barrès, Gérard Depardieu as Robert Taro. Photo: David Koskas/Netflix

Welcome back to our coverage of Marseille, or, alternatively, How Netflix Is Helping Me Practice French. I hope you, dear reader, are doing this for language-learning purposes, too, because it increasingly seems like that’s the only way we’re going to get value out of this programme très stupide.

“Straw Man” confirms a few more details about Barres’s not-so-secret plan to undermine the casino deal and sabotage Taro’s career. It seems the mob boss he’s working with is fighting the casino because it would undermine his own illegal gambling operation, which consists of … slot machines in cafés that look like pinball machines. But only until you examine them for more than ten seconds. This is a totally foolproof scheme and it makes perfect sense they’ve never been discovered by the authorities.

There’s also the matter of looming illnesses, primarily Taro’s. He has a rather serious-sounding degenerative condition that he’s masked from his family and the public, which is why he’d been prepping succession plans. But Barres’s affair with the wife of a colleague who shares a doctor with Taro gives him the dirt, which he uses (with some reluctance — he’s a complex man) to tear Taro’s family apart. How, you may ask? By rather unconvincingly putting on a show of concern for his assistant, Barbara (whom you may remember is the roommate of Taro’s daughter, Julia) and then sneering at her from just behind his office wall as she sends the news up the chain. He didn’t even leave the room to sell his story! The cheese of this drama isn’t nearly refined enough to measure up to France’s fromageries, but God bless Benoît Magimel for his slithering, not-at-all-serious performance.

Elsewhere, Marseille is starting to feel more and more like a subpar Starz soft core. After sharing a not-unlusty smooch with her roommate, Julia goes on the prowl for the handsome ghetto boy she left hanging in the pilot. They end up sharing a sensual evening that’s so impersonal she doesn’t even tell him her name until he’s on his way out the door the next morning. (“Dad’s the mayor so I can’t be discovered” is going to become a persistent theme here, considering how much it must compromise her day job at the freaking newspaper.) This arouses the fiery anger of Julia’s spurned friend Eric (Guillaume Arnault), the former bedroom partner who tried to assault her, and he swiftly plunges himself deeper into the criminal underworld, which means he’ll likely be coming in touch with Barres’s evil plan sooner or later. Joy!

So few of these developments are narratively challenging. It’s connect-the-dots for overgrown children: This character goes here, and that character goes there, until we reach the shortest distance between two points that’s still technically a story. The newspaper editor is maybe in league with Barres! The mob boss is working with the gang leader to whom Eric is now indebted! The criminals may disguise their slots inside pinball casings, but (if this show is to be believed) Marseille is just one big pinball city, with various unsavory dudes as the bumpers and screenwriter Dan Franck’s musty plot mechanisms as the flippers.

Focusing on the goofiness will be the best way to get through this slog. There’s the grotesque charred corpse of the land developer who wanted only to make millions of dollars on a casino; Julia and Barbara’s fight over the right to flirt with Barres despite both of them running through lovers like Kleenex; and Taro openly considering a run for another term against Barres despite his failing health and an adviser’s warning that he has a “zero percent” chance. But there’s also the formulaic buzzkill of Taro’s wife, Rachel, whose early-onset arthritis will soon prevent her from playing cello. Hopefully she gets the blues out of the way soon and can join in all the lurid fun — have a few affairs, sabotage a few careers. It’s not fair to freeze her out just because she’s stuck playing the role of loyal political wife. Everyone in this damned city deserves a little action.

Baguette Bits:

  • Earlier, I’d hoped the politics of urban planning might prove an interesting hook for the series. But now it’s clear the only way we’re going to actually learn something about Marseille — or about Europe’s fight for modernization — is by accidental dialogue between all the the lip-locking.
  • The city sure looks nice, though. And there’s at least one cool shot this episode, from the POV of a docked ship.

Marseille Recap: Pinball City