For the past few weeks I have been binge-watching the Netflix series Call My Agent! (or Dix pour cent, as it is more satisfyingly known in France). Though it’s not quite as exquisite, multilayered and beguiling as my all-time favourite French drama Le Bureau, it has a similar appeal: strong, well-drawn characters in a distinctive setting in another country (France, obvs) where they do things differently because everyone is just so damned French.
This time it’s not about foreign intelligence services but a movie talent agency which, though perpetually on its uppers (for the purposes of that TV concept known as ‘jeopardy’, I suppose), nevertheless seems to have on its books all the most bankable stars in France. They crop up, playing themselves, in cameo roles. You can detect the series getting more popular and successful because the level of celebrity it attracts increases, from ones you’ve never heard of in season one to stars such as Isabelle Huppert, Monica Bellucci, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sigourney Weaver in the later ones.
I expect that quite a few of the subtleties and resonances are lost on an English-speaking audience. So, for example, when cool, sexy, cultish yoof icon Norman Thavaud sends himself up in season two, episode three, I imagine French audiences go wild at the comedic craziness of it all while English ones just go ‘Qui?’ Or take the scene where one of the main characters is reduced to tears watching an old advert from his youth, probably the equivalent of the 1970s Hovis ad or maybe the Nimble balloon, but void of nostalgia for English-speaking viewers who didn’t grow up with it.
Particularly troubling for me is the character of Mathias Barneville (the agency’s senior partner, played by a fellow with the wonderfully aristocratic name — and he did indeed grow up in a vast château — Thibault de Montalembert). He reminds me so much of Roger Allam that I keep expecting him to come up with brittle, cynical one-liners like those in The Thick of It.
But he never does, partly, I suspect, because flippant, jaded, ironic comedy is more of an Anglo-Saxon thing, while the French prefer to keep things soulful, intense and deep. So deep in places that it’s almost painful to watch: hidden secrets that tear families apart, excruciatingly unsuitable — yet totally comprehensible — office affairs, grand passions, crushing rejections, career-trashing jealousies… Many is the episode where I’ve found myself pacing the room only half-watching it through my fingers as I groan: ‘Nooo, nooo’. The series was created by a woman, Fanny Herrero, and I suspect that it is female viewers who’ll get the most out of it because of their higher tolerance for this kind of emotional horror stuff.
The characters are what make it: Hervé, the needy, catty, bitchy yet super competent gay assistant; Andréa, the gorgeous, ruthlessly competitive, romantically amoral predatory lesbian; Hicham, the psychopathic boss from hell whom you cannot yet help liking because he’s so outrageously, unrepentantly himself; sweet novice agent Noémie, your Everywoman representative in this world of craziness; ancient, dope-smoking, annoying-dog-owning Arlette, who has known everyone, seen everything and once had a passionate affair with Chet Baker…
In the days when I used to write about showbiz, I particularly hated theatrical agents because they’re so perpetually stand-offish and vile towards journalists. But that’s because agents protect their talent like mother hens and see hacks as a source of unhelpful gossip or cruel reviews. Watching Call My Agent! doesn’t make you necessarily love these people — they lie, they cheat, they’re venal, they’re whores — but it does make you realise how incredibly hard they work for that dix pour cent (though I bet US agents charge more). It certainly involves a lot more than looking at scripts and going ‘Oui. Parfait pour mon client Christophe Lambert!’
Which is, of course, the source of the series’ convoluted, often farce-influenced plotlines. Actors being highly strung, erratic and difficult, there are endless complications (presumably based on true-life incidents) that need smoothing out by their ingenious, hard-pressed talent handlers. In one episode, Jean Dujardin remains so stuck in character as a stinky, raw rabbit-gnawing, backwoods-dwelling second world war poilu deserter that he can’t move on to his next project as a clean-cut banker; in another, veteran actor Guy Marchand has a stroke on set and ways have to be found to persuade the insurers that he is not a liability; in another, Juliette Binoche is told that, feminist principles or no, she really needs to attend the Cannes boat party of a lecherous rich producer if she wants her future projects financed.
Call My Agent! finished its fourth season at the end of last year. I gather there won’t be any more, which is a shame — but maybe for the best. How would a talent agency function in a Paris dominated by masks on film sets with anally retentive social distancing regs? Better that it stays a nostalgic reminder of the free world we’ve lost.