What if the masquerade of the entertainment industry was viewed from an altogether different vantage point than Hollywood, for a change? French cinéma is often considered arty or cerebral fare made by weirdo auteurs, yet the system of wheeling and dealing is just as extant in the Parisian entertainment industry as in Los Angeles. The television show Call My Agent! presents precisely this cutthroat perspective. Tonally, the show is never wincingly cynical like Ricky Gervais’ Extras, nor is it a Technicolor fairytale like Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. If anything, it’s threaded with a bit of Succession energy, labyrinthine scheming being a narrative constant.
Call My Agent!—Dix Pour Cent in French, or ten percent, which is the cut agents receive from their clients— debuted in France in 2015, created by former talent agent Dominique Besnehard and helmed by scriptwriter Fanny Herrero. The fourth and final season, which drops this Thursday on U.S. Netflix, originally premiered in France last year with a new duo of showrunners (Herrero left last season) and the introduction of an almost preposterously nefarious new character. The culmination of the show is not one of happily ever after, but its brutalism is also reflective of the industry’s extremist flux, impermanence, and renewal.
The series’ very first episode opens with a talent agent pulling up on his scooter to the opulent Westin hotel near Place Vendôme. When he arrives, his client, Belgian actress Cécile de France (playing herself), has not materialized for the scheduled photo shoot. She is in fact far out of the city, atop a horse, trying to cram-learn how to ride because she lied about her equestrian abilities in order to be eligible for a Quentin Tarantino film. Her inability to feign being a jockey is ultimately not at all what costs her the role; even before this lie comes to light, she is rejected for her age (she’s turning 40). And thusly, right from the top, Call My Agent! synthesizes and demystifies the profession: its casual overpromising, reckless bluffing, extreme tardiness, ceaseless negotiation, and deep disappointment.
France’s entertainment industry plays out through the funnel of ASK, a prestigious talent agency, established by Samuel Kerr, a paterfamilias with a wandering eye. When he dies unexpectedly while on vacation in South America (allegedly from swallowing a bee but also maybe while in the company of a prostitute), the four remaining agents scramble to keep the business afloat without its founder. Amongst them is Andréa, a hot-headed ballbuster who throws her phone off the roof in frustration and rips up other people’s photographs; she’s sharp-tongued, mercurial, pushy, impassioned, devoted, and inevitably gets what she wants. (Actress Camille Cottin, who plays her, is reason enough to watch the show.) There’s Arlette, trailed by her dog Jean Gabin: a raspy-voiced perennial of ASK ready with witty asides and gossip about an older generation of entertainers. There’s Gabriel, affable but maladroit if not incompetent, prone to huffing whipped cream straight from the can when he screws up. Last and least is slithery, calculating Mathias: a bourgeois family man on the surface but a deadbeat parent to his 20-something daughter Camille, whom he secretly fathered during a dalliance and never disclosed to anyone. Newly arriving in Paris from the south, she tries to re-enter his life and reconnect; when he swats her away, she manages to get a job at his agency, without revealing to anyone that she’s his progeny. She assists Andréa and becomes one of ASK’s diligent underlings, alongside Hervé (the gay guru), Noémie (the self-satisfied kook), and Sofia (the aspirational actress and unfortunate vessel for fielding Black clichés). In later seasons Hicham, a wealthy narcissist investor who takes over the agency’s management, swaggers in to patch up fiscal problems but drains morale with his bullying tactics. Each employee maneuvers in accordance with their own thirsty ambitions, but the team nonetheless maintains their connective tissue, despite ever-escalating feuds.
Andréa likens agents to putti, or cherubic cupids in Italian. The agent metier, per the show, revolves around troubleshooting and endless precarity: finding roles, negotiating contracts, managing outbursts and clashing creative visions, not to mention the logistics of film sets, the fragility of creative self-worth, and a constant readjustment of the bottom line. Its actual realism is, perhaps, debatable; in an article for 20 Minutes, in which French talent agents were anonymously interviewed, people said the profession was both more boring than how it was depicted and more complicated given the flurry of publicists, stylists, and other mainstays who make up a star’s entourage, who are not really included here.
Still, the day-to-day reality of being a professional in Paris is, in a sense, the show’s forte. Call My Agent! is an antithesis to an Emily in Paris-style view of the city that cranks up the confectionary fantasy to appeal to an audience of foreigners. The ASK office, while boasting a tony address adjacent to the Louvre, is ultimately rather unremarkable. Even Paris, as a metropolitan setting, is mostly scrubbed of glamor. There’s a glimpse of Notre Dame as a Camille rushes by it on her Vélib to try to correct a rookie mistake; Andréa accidentally-on-purpose bumps into an actress in the Jardin du Luxembourg to try to get her to change her mind about a role; the Eiffel Tower looms behind Mathias while meeting his rival from a competing agency. The city is almost incidental; the foreground is, always, opportunism. The ASK elevator regularly chimes “ouverture des portes” (doors opening) and “fermeture des portes” (doors closing), doubling as a refrain for life in the agency.
Even in the day-to-day context, an absurdist streak runs through everything. ASK fields calls from fans asking for stars’ addresses to send them perfume; Russian billionaires request actresses as arm candy for a fee when they’re in town; designers reach out to dress stars for splashy funerals. When actress Julie Gayet disappears off a film set and won’t answer her phone, her agent baits her with a fake rendezvous request from Steven Spielberg, warning her she’s up against Diane Kruger for a role. (Of course, it works.) Professional rivalry, light blackmail, and a lot of emotional fluffing are the agent’s toolkit for leverage.
Every episode features an actor or actress playing him or herself. Most are unknown outside of France or francophone countries, barring a handful whose star power and acclaim transcends international borders, like Isabelle Huppert or Jean Dujardin. (Although: look out for Sigourney Weaver in season four, spry and charismatic as they come.) For viewers unfamiliar with the featured stars, the typologies are still recognizable ones. In fact, the words “caprice” and “capricious” are used repeatedly throughout the series: actors, directors, and scriptwriters are tirelessly fickle and temperamental. Brigitte Bardot, while not on the show, is turned into a verb: “bardotter” means to exhibit a prima donna-like behavior. Basically, every entertainer is a headache.
While it’s less “gossipy” when you don’t know the actors playing to—or against—type, there’s always a murmur of the David Marchese-style celebrity interview: a kind of meta-confrontation on how much an actor is overtly aware of, or engaging with, or even manipulating self-perception. The degrees of self-skewering vary, but how a public figure wields his or her reputation is consistently at the root of the show. Watching and being watched is a power game, and reputations are forged or undone accordingly. As viewers, we observe the agents working for the stars, who are scrutinized in turn—with admiration, envy, or disapproval—by the French public. But by virtue of playing themselves, these actors are studying their reputations doubly, from within and without the confines of the screen.
Call My Agent! also explores the burdens and compromises of collaborative work: between different generations and, more poignantly, between genders. In one episode, Andréa tries to buffer Juliette Binoche from a leering powerful mogul who invites her onto his yacht during the Festival de Cannes. “This is not the 19th century,” Andréa declares on Juliette’s behalf to a woman overseeing the behind-the-scenes of the Cannes ceremony, whom she wants to run interference. “She is not a courtesan or a luxury hen.” But the Cannes organizer responds, bewildered, “Of course we’re still in the 19th century”—and advises compliance to get financing for Binoche’s next film, rather than humiliate “that type of man…. don’t test his ability to harm you.” (Binoche ends up solving the problem herself by acting unhinged and ultimately putting the man off enough for him to rescind his coastal invitation. Crazy overrides sexy!)
In a different but deeply disquieting episode, actress Beatrice Dalle (playing herself) refuses to carry out the so-called vision of a viperous director, who wants to retool a morgue scene to be “subtly erotic” (!). Dalle, horrified at the gratuity of using her naked body for titillation in a morgue, categorically refuses to go back to set, but it turns out that her contract’s legal wording is ambiguous enough that the situation swings in the director’s favor. When Dalle and the director’s respective agents craftily broker a meeting between them for a tête-à-tête, the director admits he insisted on Dalle’s full-body nudity because he simply couldn’t figure out how to make the scene interesting. He capitulates and suggests a cannibalistic (!) alternative to the story instead. (Is this what world peace looks like?)
At times, Call My Agent’s main takeaway feels like: how is there an entire system in place to enable so much collective lunacy? And yet, the confluence of creativity and obsession and delusion provides the foundation of our cultural imagination. The movie industry is wildly flawed, and its modern systems of representation need untold amounts of work, but it’s a sphere that viewers and professionals alike are, ultimately, insatiable for.