The internet has always had the power to connect us to the world. But in the years since television has migrated online, why have so few international programs failed to catch on stateside? (I’m not speaking of British shows, mate: PBS bridged that gap decades ago.) If it’s just a lack of high-profile foreign language shows, that’s about to change. Marseille is the first original French-language production from Netflix, which just launched its service in the country in 2014.
There’s a shrewd economic reason why this show exists: France’s tough laws governing technology, combined with its robust local film and TV productions, are making America’s new favorite streaming pastime a tough sell in La Republique. A pricey political drama starring one of the country’s biggest stars, Gérard Depardieu, in a story that both embraces and undermines the national civics system (and that, itself, is about shrewd economic choices), is a gambit Netflix borrowed from … well, from their own playbook. They took a remarkably similar path for their first original U.S. series, House of Cards.
After the pilot episode, calling Marseille the French HOC would be overly generous. The show follows the same types of scheming politicians with inflated egos and libidos, but without the wry winks and nudges that defined the spirit of its progenitor. Marseille is slickly paced like an American network drama, with the hammy performances and characterizations to match. This being France, though, there’s a lot more high culture, soccer, and gratuitous sex.
Depardieu, the French homegrown acting legend who famously established residency in Belgium, then Russia, to avoid paying a tax on the wealthy, clearly relishes playing Robert Taro, the kind of backroom-dealing politician who sets those loopholes in the first place. Taro has been the mayor of Marseille for 20 years, and when we first meet him, he’s snorting cocaine somewhere down a blue-raspberry hallway. (Give France a break; they’re only just grasping the familiar American concept of a television antihero.) Taro is preparing to transfer power to his longtime deputy, a glaring, scheming ice sculpture of a man named Lucas Barres (Benoît Magimel, The Connection), who all but screams, “I’m untrustworthy!” at the mentor he’s planning to betray. Taro seems to be passing the torch with some reluctance, and when he compares Marseille to a mistress and Barres to a son, a colleague’s response (“You don’t share your mistress with your son”) may prove to be unpleasant foreshadowing.
But before he goes, Taro desperately wants to build a casino that he believes will develop the city’s port and let it compete in the modern global marketplace. This requires both a city council vote, in a classy local government chamber that looks like a U.N. meeting, and a looming vote among the landowners to sell the parcel to the city. In between the first successful vote and the concluding one that goes south, a lot of stuff happens, most of it peripheral. Taro’s daughter (Stéphane Caillard), a newspaper reporter who won’t use dad’s famous name in the workplace, gains access to a gang-controlled ghetto for a story, where some of the many destitute faces thrust in front of the camera will likely turn out to be important. Her childhood friend, who’s in love with her, attempts to violate her consent, then gets involved in criminal behavior. Then in a totally inconsequential scene, her roommate — who is also Barres’s assistant — has lesbian sex and giggles about it. Taro’s wife (Géraldine Pailhas, Young and Beautiful), a classical cellist, is busy fretting over a major concert. And the wife of one of Taro’s colleagues is revealed to be carrying on a steamy affair with Barres in his luxurious and impersonal penthouse. (He climaxes while hearing Depardieu’s voice in his head. It’s best not to dwell on that too much.)
Though Taro planned to hand over the city to Barres anyway, the upstart wants to snatch it from him. Working behind the scenes, he arranges for the kidnapping and murder of the retired judge who would have represented the key casino vote, paving the way for Barres to do an about-face and vote against the sale. Taro is publicly embarrassed, and abruptly learns that his protégé is actually his enemy. “I’ve waited 20 years,” Barres snarls at him in the meeting room, as folks filing out immediately after the vote. Mission accomplished! Now everyone knows about your pissing match.
Though seven episodes remain in the season, it’s already clear Netflix will need to step up its game. Marseille’s plot relies on coincidental connections between characters — it’s also embarrassingly lurid, and seems destined to include many dull threads. But there are early aspects that promise some pulpy fun, mostly involving Depardieu and Magimel’s scenery-chewing contest. If the cinematography ever learns how to slow down, the visuals of Marseille itself might genuinely impress. If you don’t have d’autres chats à fouetter (a French idiom that translates to “other cats to whip”), stick around, and we’ll see if this Eurotrash drama gets any better.
- The producers must have paid a pretty penny to get Alexandre Desplat to compose the score. Because every serious drama loves cellos, there are a lot of them on the soundtrack.
- Surprising absolutely no one familiar with Depardieu’s work, Mayor Taro enjoys using a great deal of lewd metaphors.
- A mafia boss shows his goons a surreptitiously shot photo of a public figure at a city council meeting, as though it would have been impossible to identify her otherwise. More dumb stuff like this and we could be looking at a camp-watch.
- My dirty secret is that I’m watching this show so I can work on my French comprehension. So far, I’ve gathered that “casino” is a cognate.