Here is the latest Zelig-style shot of me standing next to some famous people. Actually, you probably don’t recognise them, although the gentlemen on the right was in Betty Blue, among many other French films. He is the urbane Jean-Hughes Anglade, one of the four principals in smash hit French cop drama Braquo, whose second season begins on French cable channel Canal+ in November, and whose first season premieres here on FX from October 30. I’ve seen the first four episodes. It’s fantastic. I’m in. And on Friday, I hosted a Q&A about the show at London’s Soho Hotel for the British media, with three of the cast, plus executive producer Claude Chelli, who is on the left. The other gentleman, whose impressive head is why many commentators are already calling it “the French Shield“, is Joseph Malerba. Here is his head, in character, alongside Anglade’s moustache. Their co-stars are Nicholas Duvauchelle (who wasn’t in London for the Q&A) and Karole Rocher (who didn’t hang around at the reception afterwards).
Critic Stephen Armstrong, who was also on the panel on Friday, wrote a very good introductory piece about Braquo for the Sunday Times‘ Culture, which is not much use to you here, as it will be hidden behind the Times‘ paywall. So this is all you need to know in advance:
Braquo will also, inevitably, be compared to The Wire – a comparison underwritten by the fact that Canal+, effectively France’s “fourth TV channel”, seems to have been forged in the image of HBO, with its strong adult fare and subscription base. It bears some similarity: it’s gritty and handheld and exposes the dark underbelly of a large city, in this instance Paris; its central quartet of cops are prone to “crossing the line” in order to bring justice to scumbags, and their maverick methodology means they rub up against their chiefs on a regular basis. What makes it different from The Wire is that it is not especially interested in the criminals. So let’s put a stop to the Wire comparisons. Although, having said that, Braquo‘s creator, writer and predominant season-one director Olivier Marchal, was once a cop, so he has that in common with The Wire‘s co-creator Ed Burns. Oh, and it also employs novelists as writers.
I shall warn you now, it’s violent. In the opening scene of the first episode of eight, it sets out its stall. This is strong stuff. As it’s subtitled, we must hope we are getting the full impact of the writing, which is sexually frank and full of expletives. It was odd to watch this episode on the big screen before the Q&A with the French-speaking cast and producer, who were watching it with the English translation. Of the four, Chelli was the most fluent English speaker, and he said he was satisfied with the way it had been subtitled. (It’s been done for a British audience – we get “bog” for toilet, for instance.) The cinematically dingy warehouse that seems to pass as a police station in the suburbs of Paris is an atmospheric, tactile base for our rogue cops; it even has its own bar – which, it turns out, is not a wishful fantasy. So this is a glimpse into the world of French urban policing that has its own attractions for a foreign audience.
All cops shows genuflect to American culture, and it’s there in Braquo, but it’s peculiarly Gallic, too, very moody and a touch existential. There are few laughs. There is little banter. It’s incredibly dark, and if the first four episodes are anything to go by, Eddy (Anglade), Theo (Duvauchelle), Roxanne (Rocher) and Walter (Malerba), these four have a habit of making things worse with their reckless procedural ways. And demons? They’ve got ‘em!
What I like is that FX are getting into the imported foreign-language drama groove. BBC4 have made it their trademark with The Killing and Spiral (whose Law & Order-style equal emphasis on the legal system makes it much more officey than Braquo, so the pair can be watched as companions to one another), and SkyArts are currently following suit with the Italian Romanzo Criminale, a period mafia origins story set in Rome whose first episode I enjoyed. I say, the more subtitled dramas the merrier. Who would have guessed five or ten years ago that the boutique channels would be fighting over imports with writing at the bottom of the screen? Let they fight. We, the viewers, are the winner.
It was fun to host a Q&A whose panel were not English, and one of whom, Rocher, spoke through a translator. (I’m hoping that watching Braquo will help me with my French, which is schoolboy at best, and hasn’t been tried out in the field since 2005 when I last went to Paris.) I discovered that US imports are all over French TV, and that, less predictably, the biggest bought-in shows out there are The Mentalist, and CSI in all its forms. As for British shows, Chelli was a big fan of The Shadow Line, which hasn’t been shown in France, and Red Riding, which has. I was interested to find out that one of the key influences on Marchal in terms of style and story was the lesser-known American cop drama, Joe Carnahan’s Narc from 2002, starring Ray Liotta, which I must admit I loved, as it seemed to hark back to 70s classics like The French Connection, which is nice, as there really is a French connection now. (Before the Q&A we had a lively discussion about how the best American cinema was influenced by the French New Wave, and yet, this grew out of a bunch of French critics’ love of classic Hollywood directors like Hawks and Hitchcock, so the give-and-take between the two cultures has always been potent.)
Anyway, looks out for Braquo, if you have access to FX. They’re about to start work on Season Three in France. And no, Monsieur Anglade didn’t really want to talk about Betty Blue. I tried.