Spiral (Engrenages) Series 3 Review
Spiral (the original French title is Engrenages meaning gears or cogs) is a French TV police procedural serial. It's also dark, bleak and cynical, more like The Wire than The Bill. The first serial aired in France in 2005 and the second in 2008. This third serial first aired in France in 2010 and here on BBC4 in 2011 with the salacious added title of The Butcher of La Villette. All three serials feature the same principal cast headed up by Caroline Proust as Capitaine Laure Berthaud of the Parisian DPJ (Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris). Her two right-hand-men are the tough guy 'Gilou' who has a weakness for drugs and whores (Thierry Godard) and the by-the-book family man 'Tintin' (Fred Bianconi). Also featured are Investigating Magistrate François Roban (Philippe Duclos) and the two drop-dead gorgeous hotshot lawyers, the idealistic Pierre Clement (Gregory Fitoussi) and his thoroughly amoral on-off partner/nemesis Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot).
Minor Spoiler Alert
I haven't seen the first two serials but had heard great things about them when, suffering from Forbrydelsen withdrawal earlier this year, I decided to give this a go when it succeeded that series on BBC4. I wasn't disappointed. It's quite bonkers in its own way but very watchable. There really is no need to watch either of the first two Spirals as this is fairly self-contained. The story kicks off with the discovery of the mutilated corpse of a young woman (how original is that) on a stretch of disused railway in the Parisian suburb of La Villette. Laure is keen to redeem her professional reputation following her disastrous handling of the case in the previous serial. It soon becomes apparent, following the discovery of a second body, that they are dealing with a serial killer. Now that would be enough for many a formulaic thriller. For this however it's just the start of a complex and somewhat tangled plot. Laure and her team bungle the initial investigation badly much to the delight of the press and her boss Aubert who is keen to take her off the case. As things develop, the core plot takes in sex-trafficking, a prostitution ring run by East Europeans and civic and police corruption. Meanwhile the morally impeccable Juge Roban has to confront his appalling relationship with his estranged mother and brother, uncovers civic corruption potentially involving the highest political office and re-ignites an old flame while dealing with an unwelcome disruptive addition to his staff. Laure has no family ties but has to hunt for an elusive serial killer while dealing with Gilou's impending transfer out (partly motivated by the sexual tension between them), keeping Aubert off her back and bringing the East European pimps to justice. And that's just scratching the surface of the first few episodes.
To discuss it in any more detail would do everyone a disservice. It really has to be watched (occasionally in disbelief) and each plot development savoured in its audacity. Although this is set in Paris, the action takes place in the seamy backstreets and underworld of the city. This is no picture postcard or love letter to one of the great cities of the world. You don't even get to see the Eiffel Tower. Most exteriors are shot in tight hand-held close-up and the most you will see of the city is the occasional bleak flyover or long-shot of prozzies on a street at night.
There is a deeply cynical streak running throughout this story and even the most morally upright characters, Roban and Clement, find their values and beliefs seriously challenged and even compromised. Laure, the antihero, does some morally and ethically dubious things in the service of The Greater Good but we know that underneath it all, she is a Good Cop.
One of the things I like about Spiral is the strange aesthetic mix of actors which you would never see in an equivalent US show. Caroline Proust is an engaging and attractive lead but Laure is a scruffy-yet-chic mess who rarely changes her clothes and even sleeps in her car on occasion. Clément and Karlsson are sleek and gorgeous and look like they have walked off the cover of a lifestyle magazine. Philippe Duclos as Juge Roban, the old silver fox, has that particular look that some older French actors have of a careworn but striking face topped by an expensive stylish haircut.
Also turning US stereotypes on their head, one of the resident nutjobs is played by a pretty young actor (with a thousand-yard stare, it has to be said) while a teen rentboy has what is euphemistically known as a 'character' face. And then you have Dominique Daguier as Roban's boss who, to be kind, has a face best suited to radio. You would NEVER see someone like him playing a similar figure in authority in an American show.
Transfer and Sound
The twelve 55-minute episodes are evenly split across three discs.
The image has a deliberate handheld grainy aesthetic to it and many shots have a noticeably greenish, blueish or yellowish hue to them. This appears to be a stylistic choice as it was also a feature of the BBC broadcast. Many location interiors also appear to use available light only - the hotel interiors in particular seem to exploit this for added bleakness. The dialogue is recorded live and I can't attest to the French actors' diction but the subtitles are comprehensive and accurate from what I can tell, more so than the Beeb's in-house titles. The image quality is as good as you would expect from something made last year. However the framings chosen by the serial's two directors are pretty tight, particularly in close-ups, so don't be surprised if characters appear to loom out of the screen.
Unlike the broadcast print transmitted by the BBC which had only English subtitles throughout, this release appears to have been copied from the French DVD transfer. Unlike the BBC print this has hard-wired French subtitles for the odd moments where the various East Europeans speak in their own languages with additional English titles at the top of the screen. The French subtitles were absent from the BBC broadcast which had English subtitles only. Also if you are wondering why all the East Europeans speak to each other mostly in French it's because they all come from different countries and use French as a common language which is also very useful for the French TV audience.
None at all but the English subtitles are optional, unlike the forced French subtitles which appear when any other language is being spoken.
If you're a fan of gritty procedurals full of mutilated corpses, civic corruption, gratuitous police brutality and moral compromise you'll love this. Don't be put off by it being in French (and the odd bit of Albanian, Ukrainian, Polish etc). The subtitling is comprehensive but once you get used to it you'll be sucked in. The performances are all excellent but the outstanding turn for me was Philippe Duclos as Juge Roban. He is one of those actors you can't take your eyes off whenever he is on screen. There are also a couple of weird but watchable character turns in the form of Corinne Masiero as Patricia a comedy whore and grass, and José Etchelus as Jesus, the most weirdly likeable sociopath you'll see for a long while.
While the show was being broadcast on BBC4 the Guardian website ran an interesting week-by-week blog and it really divided opinion. There are many insights from committed viewers as well as contributions from people saying how much they hate it. I recommend it. You can find it here.