Monday, 14 September 2009


With BBC4 finally showing the second series of the French crime series Spiral, it's a good opportunity to look back on series one, which originally aired in France in the winter of 2005-06, and on BBC 4 in the summer of 2006. The UK DVD version was released last October; I watched it late last year, anticipating I'd hook the review to the debut of the follow-up series, which aired in France in the summer of 2008.

The first series opened with the mutilated body of a Romanian woman being found in a dump. She is assumed to be a hooker, but the case soon becomes more complicated than that, and as magistrate Pierre Clement (played by Gregory Fitoussi) begins to investigate it begins to, well, spiral out of control (the French title, Engrenages, or 'Cogs' adds depth to that, because each development is connected, in the cogs of French society, and Fitoussi is soon disturbing those connections, some of which are very close to home.

It opened looking very much like a French version of CSI, complete with fast-moving POV and explicit gore. This toned down as the series progressed, with a grimmer, more realistic look taking over, contrasted with the slick, shiny camera-work when dealing with the loftier echelons of business or society. In that it may be closer to The Wire, or perhaps to the over-hanging story-arc of corruption behind Homicide.

But it is also very explicitly French, most tellingly in the character of police Capt. Laure Berthaud, played very much as someone almost desperate emotionally, by the enigmatic Caroline Proust. It's sometimes hard to imagine, even in France, that she could be commanding her own investigative unit, but somehow it works, partly because one of her two sidekicks, Gilou, is hopeless himself, addicted to drugs and hookers (it doesn't help that Thierry Godard, the actor playing him is a dead ringer for one of our floor managers on Five's NFL show, and would fit into The Wire perfectly if anyone there spoke French--he's the one sitting in the alley in the publicity shot at the bottom of the page). Proust and Fitoussi will, inevitably, hook-up, but it works in large part because Fitoussi is able to convey his character's befuddlement with the real world.

In fact, as the story line spirals deeper, we realise that Clement is still hung up on his ex-wife, played with wonderful overtones of evil by Anne Caillon. He appears to have always felt awkward trying to fit in with her wealthy family, and as the connections mount up with perhaps too much coincidence, being used by her and them. Coincidence abounds in the storyline, but what makes it work so well is that the coincidences are a product of the structure, the cogs of society if you will, and as each layer of corruption, betrayal, and lie is uncovered, the cogs continue to turn even as they are slipping.

Overseeing all of this is Clerment's boss, Judge Roban, played by Phillipe Duclos almost exactly as a more neurotic gray-haired Arsene Wenger, which makes him a formidable character. As Clement, in effect, blunders downward in his spiral, Roban's motivations are always suspect, which provides exactly the touch of ambiguity the plot needs. On the other side, Audrey Fleurot, as an ambitious lawyer named, eerily, Maitre Karlsson, acts as a sort of balance to the idealistic Clement.

As the series winds to a close it does become melodramatic, with a few twists designed specifically to keep it from being resolved fully, which presumably helps set up series two. Series one was riveting; it's hard to tell whether this qualifies as hard-boiled TV in French terms, but the mix of an almost Chabrolian vision of both societal and personal corruption, with the French version of romantic soap (as unabashed as any American ensemble cop show), a sensationalist attitude to violence and a very dark world of crime high and low is totally compelling television. I'll be watching the second series with great interest, and writing about once I've got a handle on it. For the time being, you can catch up with the first series on DVD, and it's highly recommended.

Spiral, Series One
BBC DVD 2008

1 comment :

Maxine said...

I very much enjoyed this series, which was recommended to me by Euro Crime, it seemed to be brilliant. But the last episode made me so annoyed - what a cop-out! Nevertheless, I've asked a friendly local person to set up the recorder for this series. Not least because of the compelling character of the main police person.