France has reinterpreted an assortment of police drama genres from the US. Slow-burning takedowns such as Spiral bore the influence of The Wire. There were shades of The Shield in the morally murky Braquo. And Jean Reno’s Jo was surely a ludicrous, high-camp spoof in the mould of Police Academy.
Now it appears French television isn’t immune from the chill winds blowing from Scandinavia, either. Witnesses is clearly influenced by Nordic noir – from its determined, complex female lead to the blue-grey colour palette – but, as with the shows mentioned in the glib comparisons above, it’s entirely its own animal. It’s also rather promising. It bodes well for Channel 4’s imminent on-demand service, 4World Drama, and rather less well for the tourist board of Le Tréport(new suggested slogan: “where the sun never shines”), which looks thoroughly dreary and unwelcoming throughout.
Two show homes, three exhumed corpses in each, arranged to resemble a family, albeit the sort of modern family where people sit in different rooms and don’t talks to each other. The two “patriarchs”, Bernard Weber and Didier Muse, had worked in construction, and killed themselves by jumping off Tréport’s Broadchurch-esque cliffs.
Not so, suggests Sandra Winckler: they were both murdered. The macabre setups are designed to draw the attention of the police – in particular, retired legend Paul Maisonneuve, whose framed photo was placed in one of the homes. Sandra seemed to crack the case unusually early for this sort of show, her team swallowing her speculative theory surprisingly willingly. This is either implausible or refreshing (at least she’s not a lone maverick); whatever the case, it explains the title of the series.
The odd couple
As is customary these days, one of the coppers has issues, the other is more straightforward. Here, we have the brilliant insomniac (and possibly OCD) Sandra juxtaposed with Justin, an amiably ursine slob with appalling taste in shirts.
Sandra is smart and observant (the croissant crumbs, the crucifix-cum-pulley). She also seems to have ability and guts to burn, contrary to Paul’s unpleasant assessment back in college. But something, clearly, caused her to lose her nerve eight years ago.
Justin seems like a good egg. He doesn’t have a surname (not even in the credits) or much in the way of a personality beyond a vague reference to a broken marriage, which probably means his days are numbered.
Frankly, they resemble a decaffeinated Saga and Martin from The Bridge, but these are early days, and we should probably be grateful that Sandra’s “issues” aren’t being depicted as dysfunctions or handicaps. At least Sandra has a family and rounded social skills – although that may not always have been the case, if Paul is to be believed. Indeed, whether Paul is to be believed may well lie at the heart of this case.
Ah, Paul. Bizarrely, Thierry Lhermitte plays the lead in the French adaptation of Doc Martin. I’d like to see Martin Clunes pull off this sort of enigmatic sangfroid. What can we make of this unreadable flic?
Well, he’s obviously liked and respected by schoolfriends and ex-colleagues, even if Justin does concede he’s “a pain in the ass”. He’s honourable and smart enough not to lead the investigation into a case that looks likely to involve him. He enjoys a trip on a funicular (who doesn’t?) and a walk in the woods (ditto), but something spooked him up there. Presumably two weeks in a coma can do strange things to the human mind, especially one that may have been contemplating suicide. He’s honest enough to warn Sandra, his protege-turned-antagonist, that he has A Past. “His ghosts keep him going”, don’t you know?
In the debit column, he’s a “bastard chauvinist”, a bully and a player of mind games (“a level of trust”, indeed). He pretends he needs a walking stick, tears up postcards and keeps a photo of a car crash in his room. His son is no fan, and he clearly has an odd relationship with his late wife. Take the scene where he sits alone in the show home, asking her “Do you think he’s the one digging up the bodies?” when perhaps he should be more concerned with Bernard and Didier’s killer. Having banged up 230 people over a 25-year career, he’s got no shortage of enemies – but why did the sniper not finish him off when he had the chance? Of course, whether any of this makes him a murderer is another matter.
Other key players
Henri Norbert: Paul’s wealthy schoolfriend and boss of show-home company Geco. He’s more worried about bad publicity than the victims. He has alibis for the deaths of Didier and Bernard, but that doesn’t necessarily count for much.
Damien: Paul’s buffoonish childhood chum is a desperate man in financial difficulties, and there’s some shady shared history there.
Laura: A waitress who knows a cop when she sees one, knew Catherine and “knows people round here. I know what they’re like”. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Time of the wolf
One of the most encouraging signs for this opening episode was the sense that things could get a little weird. From the opening titles, with the wolf snarling in the beach hut, through to the unfinished fairytale of the princess in the woods, there’s something odd going on.
The squatter claimed he’d seen a wolf in the show home, and I wondered whether there was a Red Riding Hood allusion as Paul stalked Laura in her scarlet coat. Might that weird ink splodge on the postcard Sandra swiped from Paul’s room resemble, from a certain angle, a wolf’s head?
Thoughts and observations
- Témoins is, of course, French for witnesses. Masions témoins is French for show homes.
- They’re really spoiling us with exposition in the dialogue (“Paul, your car crash was eight months after your wife died, you’ve been in a rehabilitation centre for two years. Perhaps the person who put the photo there visited you at the centre?”). Yet, somehow, it didn’t seem as crass as it should have – maybe I’ve had my fill of allusive True Detectivisms.
- Remarkably, this is Marie Dompnier’s first on-camera lead performance, after years in the theatre. You certainly can’t tell. She won best actress at the Biarritz international festival of audiovisual programming, awards junkies (Toby Jones won best actor for Marvellous).
- Does Sandra have some sort of foot fetish to go with everything else?
- Her “rabbit” impression was more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha.
- Why pose the families? Is this to be a swiftly forgotten McGuffin, like the splicing of the corpse in series one of The Bridge?
- Who was investigating the first show-home case?
- For the record, the other corpses were Catherine Mandrin and Sarah Bergeron in the second show home. Not sure about the identities of the women in the first house, though. I feel a little uncomfortable that the male corpses are the ones deemed worthy of attention, although this could change.
- I confess to being unfamiliar with Bernard Werber and Empire of the Ants. Is there anything we can infer from the reference?
- I loved the assassination attempt. Really jolted the thing to life after an hour of relatively routine procedural.
- Can it be that no one saw or heard the gunman?
- Was that blurring of the face purely for our benefit, or did it represent Paul’s POV? Nothing if not about deep research, I squinted; they didn’t look familiar.
- Denis is the latest in a long, inglorious line of biddable police archivists. Has there ever been one in TV or film who hasn’t been persuaded to grant contentious access?