Commentary: How French comedy of manners ‘Call My Agent’ became an American sensation
That feeling when you have eaten all the candy in the house and you look on the doorstep to find that someone has sent you a 1-pound box of assorted nuts and chews is pretty much how I felt learning that a fourth season of “Call My Agent” had landed on Netflix.
The series, called “Dix Pour Cent” (“Ten Percent”) in its native France, first came to my attention a couple of summers ago, by word of mouth, when the first two seasons were available. It was quickly clear that this was a series that had my name on it, handwritten and bordered in gold, presented on a dish made of silver. Set in a Paris-based talent agency, it is salted, after the manner of “The Larry Sanders Show,” with real French screen stars, including Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jean Reno (and in the latest season, American Sigourney Weaver) playing ironic versions of themselves, and shot in real Paris locations. And though it is obviously not completely original — it’s a workplace comedy in more than one television tradition — it’s also different in the way that one language is different from another even when a sentence says the same thing.
Every country has its own way of doing things, the sum of its cultural history. There are influences across borders, of course, but they are always filtered through a local lens, which is why, say, Jacques Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” while it pays homage to American musicals (Gene Kelly’s in it, even), it looks or plays nothing like an American musical; when French directors engage American noir, it comes out as “Breathless” or “Shoot the Piano Player.” Fanny Herrero, who developed “Call My Agent” from an idea by talent agent-turned-producer Dominique Besnehard, has cited the American series “Friday Night Lights,” “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and “The West Wing” as inspirations, which might have something to do with its stateside popularity. (Then again, it is also an international success, which might have something to do with the power of Netflix.) But she has made something quite un-American out of them.
One of my favorite television shows of 2018 is the 2015 French dramedy “Call My Agent!”
At the end of the first episode, the agency’s founder dies, and much of what happens in the four seasons that follow is involved with keeping the ship afloat: hanging on to clients, signing new ones and warding off attacks from the agency’s superpowered, contextually evil competition, StarMédia, personified in the current season by Anne Marivin’s sociopath, Elise. Walking abreast in the opening credits are the surviving four partners: Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert), a powerful agent; Andréa (Camille Cottin), a passionate agent; Gabriel (Grégory Montel), an emotional agent; and Arlette (Liliane Rovère), who has seen it all. Introduced as assistants are Hervé (Nicolas Maury), a novel mix of ambition and self-doubt; Noémie (Laure Calamy), territorial, devoted to Mathias; and Camille (Fanny Sidney), the new girl in town, who is also Mathias’ daughter, as the others (including Mathias) will eventually learn. Along with receptionist and aspiring actress Sophia (Stéfi Celma), they will wind up somewhere different in the end. Assaad Bouab plays Hicham, an internet millionaire who buys into the agency in the second season.
Like “The West Wing” (and every other Aaron Sorkin series), “Call My Agent” is a story of people who love their work, even though it drives them crazy and ruins their lives. Even when they leave the office it’s usually for something work-related, and when we see relations outside work, work is usually getting in the way. (One thing the series does well is picture the hierarchy of the workplace and how it determines who hangs with whom inside it and out.) But where Sorkin uses the office as a platform from which to address Big Social Ideas, “Call My Agent” is more interested in people and how they are — curious creatures, amusing to watch under pressure, as they try to make things happen or keep them from happening; hold onto a job or gain a little power; make art and/or make a living; uncover the truth or hide it. Apart from Arlette, who possesses the earned wisdom of a long, eventful life, they are all working through things they have no idea they are working through. Herrero has described it as “a comedy of manners,” featuring “very independent female characters who don’t live through love or men” and also as “a prism through which to address the relation of art and money, work and the relation between public and private life.”
After I wrote a mixed but generally affectionate review of “Lupin,” a newer French production on Netflix, I was twice interviewed by French journalists who wondered why America embraced a series French critics found disappointing, even bad. One suggested that, indeed, most French shows weren’t worth watching at all. I suggested to each that “Lupin” might have gained something in translation, the French itself covering over a multitude of cliches, and by the fact that in the American imagination, Paris remains the default city of romance. (That last fact might have something to do with the love-hate relationship domestic critics have with Darren Star’s “Emily in Paris,” a series they admit to enjoy even as they tick off its faults. French critics just seem to mock it.)
Between the charms of star Omar Sy and its vengeful play on “gentleman thief” Arsène Lupin, the action drama’s viewers may find themselves in binge mode.
For generations, even centuries, the world has regarded Paris as a place of sophistication, friskiness, openness, creative stimulation and casual chic. It is the subject of Cole Porter songs and a tone poem by George Gershwin, Lost Generation memoirs and novels, the setting of myriad Hollywood dramas and musicals and of multiple Disney features. There is much truth in the cliches, to be sure, but if you spend any time watching French films or reading French news, you know that the country has its parochial, populist, prudish side as well. (That the French make bad movies and television shows, along with the good ones, is a necessary narrative component in “Call My Agent.”) There is plenty of Gallic charm in “Call My Agent” — a charm to which I am plenty susceptible, from Tintin to Tati to Tautou — though I don’t think I’m mistaken as to its quality, and the stature of the actors who show up to mock themselves suggests its reputation within France is solid. (It’s a hit, in any case.) The fourth season was made without Herrero — she left for various stated reasons, including a need to reset and clashing with Besnehard over control. (Another influence on Herrero from American television is her belief that in television the writer is the auteur.) But the ship gets safely into harbor.
French film can be precious or peculiar, and there are a few pointedly cinematic passages in the fourth season — a silent-movie “iris out” as a character clicks his heels, a dance sequence — but naturalism is the guiding principle, in performance and production. Some of what makes “Call My Agent” distinct from its American cousins is surely technical: a choice of lenses, the way characters occupy a frame, so that you feel that you are within the scene rather than looking on from afar, through a window. Even when the plotting requires a Lucy Ricardo degree of energy — and there are a lot of sitcom situations, including a variation on “Two Dates for the Prom,” with a double-booked Huppert, and an actual banana peel waiting to go off like Chekhov’s gun in the Gainsbourg episode, which employs a “Fake an Injury to Avoid Hurting Feelings” storyline — it feels true rather than prescribed.
The parts fit the actors and the actors the parts, and because none of the main cast is really known over here apart from “Call My Agent,” it redoubles the impression that we are watching real people leading real lives. Although the series feels finished (notwithstanding Besnehard’s public suggestion that a movie coda or even a fifth season might follow), one is loath to let the characters go and to see the actors go on to play different people. It will be like awakening from a particularly pleasant dream to a somewhat less pleasant day.
And then you discover you have eaten all the candy.
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