Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Engrenages: compelling French TV crime drama

Two years ago the BBC bought and screened a French TV crime drama called Engrenages [which roughly translates as gears or cogs, but can also mean a spiraling cycle e.g. into violence]. Renamed Spiral and shown in French with English subtitles, it won a small but loyal audience on BBC4, a non-terrestrial channel. This was before the days of iPlayer, so those of us without access to digital channels never had a chance to see this much acclaimed thriller.

I filed the name away in my head and bought the series when it was eventually released on DVD two months ago. But life and work pressures meant I didn't have a chance to watch any episodes until this Sunday just gone. It proved utterly compelling - dark, bleak, funny and gripping - so much so I had to force myself to stop watching after the first four episodes. It was midnight and the working week beckoned. Save the rest for later, I told myself.

Watched another two episodes last night and had the same problem. Now there's only two episodes left, the drama is racing to a climax and I'm desperate to know what happens next. Like I said, utterly compelling. It's like a cross between the twisty-turny plot machinations of Damages and the gritty realism of The Wire, transported to Paris. Cops and lawyers, junkies and criminals, secrets and lies all grapple for supremacy in this police procedural.

The diversities of the French legal system give the procedural aspects a freshness after too many years watching shows set in the British and American systems. The fact you have to read the subtitles to understand what people are saying forces you to pay more attention. The characters are all flawed in some way, but most have redeeming features. This show isn't afraid to confuse its audience temporarily for the sake of better longterm storytelling.

The good news is a second series of Engrenages has already been made and screened in France. Even better, the BBC has bought it for broadcast this winter. Alas, it'll be on BBC4 again, but the advent of iPlayer means non-digital viewers now have a chance to see Spiral. [Why it's relegated to BBC4 escapes me.] In the meantime, I heartily recommend watching the first series on DVD if you didn't catch it first time round. A great find.

4 comments:

Colin Wilson said...

I caught a few episodes of this when it was shown on free-to-air here in Australia earlier this year, and loved it. While it might not have the scope of The Wire, (and after only one series, what could?) it was certainly heading in the right direction....

0tralala said...

We were glued to the BBC4 screening too, so hooray for a second season. The Beeb translated the title as "Spiral", which I assumed was a "mise en abyme" thing like in classic Film Noir, where the protagonists are caught in a plot whirlpool...

Anonymous said...

dear David, berloody Xmas, a time of year I absolutely loathe. Because that is so I shouldn't inflict that hatred across the world. So to your good self and Alison may you both enjoy the season and the winter. Here we are just starting to move into long hot nights to go with the long hot days. Now relevence to your blog, The Wire was compelling and wonderful teev but ghettoised After 11 on a Tuesday. There has been a bit of can you please show it at in a decent timeslot with some promotion, so far to no avail. Anyway it's some kind of holiday season which seems to be an excuse to show great amounts of mush flavoured crap. conclusion, don't have one. Love some southern Bishops and Barbie

smhaig said...

I am in New York. I saw this on the internet as I spend lots of time looking for good tv programs from UK and elsewhere - other than US. (of course we have good ones occasionally)

Engrenages is truly top TV. Damages & the Wire is a great description. But so French. When the detective asks the Cororner. "What did he die of?". The response is: "Hunger, thirst, despair."

Can't fathom that on US crime shows.

Another terrific series is the Swedish Wallander series. The British version seems more British than Swedish and Branaugh is good, but the real series (with Eng. subs) is another wonderful program with deep looks into moral depravity. The opening shots of the first of the series begins in an idyllic marsh setting. You see birds in the water and swans taking flight. Then something happens that you really will not be able to get out of your head.