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Spin & Marseille: French TV does politics in vivid technicolour

April 5, 2017


Spin 2

Grégory Fitoussi (left) and Bruno Walkowitch in More 4’s French political drama Spin

In this, the year that France goes to the polls to elect a President amid the meltdown of the left and the rise of the right, you could do worse than watch two Gallic TV shows to learn about the ideological minefield that is French politics.

Spin, which was first broadcast in 2012, and Marseille (2016), Netflix’s first foreign language production, illustrate the shifting loyalties and corruption that appear to be more nakedly evident in French politics than most other places.

Concentrating on the effects of a supposed suicide bomb during the run-in to a presidential election, Spin, which was one of Channel 4’s first Walter Presents… offerings, is a brilliant exploration of the dogfighting, horse trading and backstabbing at the centre of French presidential politics.

Nathalie Baye, perhaps best known to English-speaking audience, for her role as Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in Catch Me If You Can (2002), is the central political figure in Spin’s first series, as she attempts to become the first female president.

Centrally, though, it is essentially about the relationship between master PR men Simon Kapita (Bruno Walkowitch) and Ludovic Desmeuze (Grégory Fitoussi), the campaign managers and kingmakers  engaged in their own master and apprentice power struggle. Just like Marseille, Oedipal overtones are writ large.

The Guardian noted, “it’s the West Wing, with added sex. Perfect for TV politicoholics, this French drama has murder sex and poetry – and the politicians play second fiddle to the beautiful spin doctors and speechwriters.”

Subsequent series aired in Britain, spoiler alert, would focus on the roles of other politicians: Philippe Magnan as the right winger Deleuvre rabidly fighting to hang on to power; Yves Pignot as Palissy, the backstage fixer and deal maker; and the brilliant, Nicolas Marié, the cuckolded centrist trying to make politics work in the face of constant betrayal.

In trying to make sense of the sometimes porous barriers between the political parties in France, where politicians leave blocs and re-establish themselves in others in return for positions in government as reward for supporting more dominant figures, Spin is excellent. Pignot plays the backstage political kingmaker Palissy with relish, sliding between the echelons of government making deals and settling scores.

The Guardian captured its complexity, “Spin is a deft combination of legislative procedural – we learn the definition of a “power vacuum” in French politics – and a drama of personal intrigue: there are already suggestions of a complicated diagram of romantic entanglements between the central characters.” Sex, within the small but hugely (metaphorically) incestuous world of French politics, provides the potential catalyst for betrayal, often on an epic scale.

A third series will air on More 4 this summer to coincide with year’s Élyssée Palace poll.

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Benoît Magimel (left) and Gérard Depardieu in Netflix’s garishly realised Marseille

Marseille may be a less substantial and serious political tract, but is a flashy, colourful, nay garish, evocation of France’s second city, which is so-often a byword for corruption, drugs, violence and social strife.

It centres on the relationship between the city’s 20-year incumbent mayor Robert Taro, beautifully portrayed by Gérard Depardieu, and his protegé Lucas Barres, energetically played by Benoît Magimel, who chews the scenery up as the sexually charged ambitious underling who yearns to seize power.

Oedipal would not describe it, and there’s a huge slice of melodrama in both narrative and characterisation. The pair are involved in a battle for control of the city of Marseille which is itself in a period of transition seeking to re-find its place in the global economy, where its port is in decline and political and business leaders seek to find external investment to return it to past glories.

There’s a vividness that often touches on luridness in its mise en scene, with a glossy colourful palette that reflects the massively multi-cultural nature of Marseille itself.

The race and class divides in a city in which immense wealth exists cheek-by-jowl with some of the worst social housing ghettos in France could be better developed in further cities.

Critics have chastised it for its superficiality, its depthless character studies, narrative reliance on exposition, flashback, and use of visual effects. The Daily Telegraph noted, “Marseille too often shows and tells: the dialogue (or perhaps the translation) is leaden and expositionary, slo-mo is used as a first resort to create tension, while pertinent remarks from earlier in the episode are reintroduced at key moments.”

The Telegraph‘s ultimate verdict was that it, “prizes style over content,” but that it shows enough potential to be something greater, “if it can find its own voice, Marseille may yet locate the urgency, passion and excitement of its famous anthem.”

What makes Marseille a vital watch in terms of learning about French politics is the character study of the cut-throat internal power dynamics of the right wing UMP party (of Nicolas Sarkozy) and the porous links between the centre right parties and the ideological promiscuity that facilitates the elevation of personal ambition over party loyalty.

It’s like everyone involved is one of those ambitious Eurosceptic Tories three years ago who defected to UKIP when they erroneously believed the latter was the coming power in British politics only to now find themselves discussing farming subsidies in the Welsh Assembly.

Ultimately Marseille is sensational because of the performances from Depardieu and Magimel, but for different reasons. The former proves that no other actor anywhere in the world can do bruised, aging masculinity better.

Publicity had Taro as the cocaine snorting mayor of the city, but the reality is that rather than being a Scorsese-style Goodfellas gangster, he uses the drug for reasons other than moral decadence. Depardieu is a man out of time and with a troubled history, like the city he both loves and comes to symbolize; coming to terms with the degeneration of himself, his family and his city, all of whom he loves too much to walk away from.

Magimel tears the joint up as the sexually voracious Barres, a bruised vision of an outsider brought up in care who rises to the top by using sex for any purpose, propositioning anyone, female or male, he thinks will advance his gargantuan appetite for power. He fucks almost anything that moves.  As a narrative device, Barres is a character study in power that explicates the wider corruption on Marseille council.

Both Marseille and Spin suffer from superficially-drawn peripheral female characters who are conceived and used only as narrative devices – both have ‘flakey’ women on political staff who are simply sexual targets to explain the domineering and competitive natures of the main protagonists.

However, as the next few weeks see the escalation of the French Presidential election, both Spin and Marseille represent an attempt at portraying politics in the raw that American drama has dominated in the last two decades, and which Britain has apparently abandoned for quite some time.


One Comment leave one →
  1. April 6, 2017 12:18 pm

    You write so well, sir. I enjoyed this tremendously.

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