How Netflix’s ‘Marseille’ Accidentally Spoofs American Prestige Television

Also contained herein: the Nose Theory of the TV Antihero!

In their review of Marseille, French publication Télérama wrote (in translation), “Saying we were eager for Marseille would be an understatement. Just think — the first French language creation from Netflix, carried by the legendary Gérard Depardieu, on the polemic subject of politics in Marseille” (a city where, in 2012, half of the entire country’s homicides occurred and where unrest has led to a reactionary rise in support for the xenophobic Front National party). You know a review that starts with such past-tense anticipation won’t conclude the same way — by the end of the review, they call the series “a failure so immense it becomes almost fascinating.”

Indeed, the Netflix series by Dan Franck — which follows the rivalry between a mayor (Gérard Depardieu) and his protege (Benoît Magimel) over the stunted erection (pun definitely intended) of a massive, supposedly revitalizing casino — is so silly that less than a week after its debut, there’s already a Tumblr strictly devoted to the series’ worst moments of dialogue. (It’s been written up both by French music/film magazine Les Inrockuptibles and French GQ.) There’s no need to be too discerning, though — you’d be hard pressed to fast-forward to any random moment and not find a ridiculous soundbite.

James Poniewozik at the New York Times hinted at the show’s one merit — that it reconstitutes the worst, most transparent and overused elements of American prestige television with such exaggerated clarity as to serve as a decoder for the formulas that are a bit harder to see through previous, better crafted series. A “hate watching” stint of the series might seem intriguing, but with hourlong episodes, devoting yourself to 10 hours of hate-eye-rolling and the occasional hate-chuckle might be a waste of your time. Rather, we’ve compiled the elements of the series that are amusingly bad enough to feel like sharp spoofs of better shows so that you don’t actually have to watch any of Marseille:

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The overwrought, self-serious title sequence:

Set to Orange Blossom’s “Ya Sidi” (sung in Arabic), the title sequence gives the very false impression of a show that will be about the geopolitics of Marseille, and the cultural intersections therein (perhaps in the vein of another recent television event about multiculturalism and oppressive city structures — Show Me a Hero). It’s hilariously out of place when the actual series suddenly reveals itself to be little more than Batman v. Superman style feud plot in which two pasty male government officials who can neither fly nor look good in spandex — Depardieu’s mayor Robert Taro and Magimel’s mayoral hopeful Lucas Barres — exploit and perpetuate the city’s problems as a way to bring one another down.

This might be an interesting commentary if the show didn’t also use the pertinent realities of Marseille as a decorative backdrop for a series that seems like it could take place anywhere. The title sequence makes this all too clear, floating surrealistically through imagery of its all-white leads looking very serious against the projects of Marseille, all set to the dramatically electro-“world”-music theme song. The introduction tries way too hard to intrigue us with the obvious corruption of the opulence of these officials’ lives — shown here by Magimel stylishly parading down the a stairwell with his mistress as the projects dangle like stalactites above them. The result is that its commentary-in-juxtaposition becomes a comically desperate attempt at legitimatization. And once you start to get to know the show, you begin to see hilarious pantomimes of character in here too — most notably, Taro throwing his head back from the dramatic rush of cocaine.

Left: True Detective Season 2, Right: Marseille
Left: True Detective Season 2, Right: Marseille

 

Aerial shots of a fraught pretty place:

Like Season 2 of True Detective or all of House of Cards, you can tell a show is lacking in ontological weight when it relies too heavily on its location as a metaphor through sweeping, awe-and-dread-inducing shots. What’s funny here is that overall, the cinematography isn’t nearly as good throughout as in True D or House of Cards, nor is the atmosphere as cohesive. This means that as soon as these prestige-TV recollective shots are over, we’re returned to a series of uneven and unremarkable aesthetic choices that make the sweeping footage of Marseille seem plucked from a tourist video. Through a show that’s devoid of anything to say, we see how series that appear more assured also ape complexity by depicting the complex, socially fraught topographies of the cities where they’re set.

Dialogue that seems far less considered than aesthetics: 

As mentioned, the show isn’t exactly aesthetically assured like True D or HoC, but it is still far more expensive looking than its dialogue sounds — which is a critique that could likewise be aimed at either of the two former shows. One of my favorite examples is the show’s lazy approximation of misogyny, as it encourages the audience to see the sliminess of Barres with the tritest of sexist gestures: having him comment lasciviously on his secretary’s outfits. Vulgarity is also used not, as in The Sopranos, as an interesting way to capture specific social tendencies, but rather strictly to bait audiences with the prurient promise of an edge: if ever Barres isn’t cartoonishly spelling out his Machiavellian schemes, he’s probably talking about his “cock,” and if he’s not talking about it, that’s because he’s either eating someone out or sucking them off, trying to convert them to support his campaign with his near boundless (not total: one of his lovers tells him “when your stress grows up, everything else droops”) sexual prowess.

 

From Left: Bobby Cannavale Nose, Gerard Dépardieu Nose, Clive Owen Nose; From Left: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com; taniavolobueva / Shutterstock.com; Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com
From Left: Bobby Cannavale nose, Gerard Dépardieu nose, Clive Owen nose; From Left: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com; taniavolobueva / Shutterstock.com; Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock.com

 

The nose as the window to the antihero: 

As with Vinyl’s Richie Finestra and The Knick‘s Dr. John Thackery before him, Marseille somehow thinks white powder will add weight to its male lead character with a powerful but damaged air. After three episodes, I feel I know Depardieu’s character more by what the show has shown he has than what he is: he has a wife and daughter, he has Marseille, and he has cocaine in his nose, always. The funniest thing is seeing this fast prestige TV signifier for male insecurity-drugged-into-confidence-or-even-megalomania rehashed here with the added melodrama of Alexandre Desplat’s surprisingly bad score, the added potential of the gapingness of Depardieu’s shnoz, and Depardieu’s own dramatic, almost sexual backward head-tosses as cocaine pervades the shnoz. I’ll give it to them — if you were going to have one actor whose nasal proclivities you’d rely on for character development, Depardieu certainly has the most expressive instrument to tell the tale.

Vaguely surreal inner-monologues: 

Six Feet Under was a great series, but ended up relying quite heavily on the externalization of internal monologue — where, say, the dead would haunt a guilty conscience and manifest in physical form to dictate a character’s thoughts. Here, Barres often hears Taro’s voice in his head, like when he’s having sex or swimming laps — and while it’s true that suddenly hearing Gérard Depardieu’s voice bellowing in the middle of a session of sweet love is good fodder for horror, it’s one of the show’s goofiest, and certainly not unprecedented, lazily experimental gestures.

 

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Cursory, peripheral queerness and bisexual villainy: 

Because the show likes to think it’s being titillating and salacious, there’s a bisexual roommate involved — always doing crazy bisexual things, like having sex with a WOMAN IN A BED. And doing MOLLY. And flirting with a MAYORAL candidate who isn’t a woman, and who also sleeps with men, because bisexuality and prestige!

Naked bodies + dead bodies:

Most cable prestige TV shows will inevitably bank on the lack of constraint that’t been awarded to them as far as making aestheticized spectacles of sex and death go (not at all a fundamentally bad thing — but so often autopiloted due to its being a practical prerequisite). On Marseille, for example, rather than leaving it up to the audience’s imagination, the series shows a charred body — teeth and all — of an assassinated developer. The image could be haunting in the context of The Americans, but here, in a series that’ll never make you feel anything besides ironic amusement, it just feels like yet another awkwardly poor imitation. Who does this show that hasn’t given us any emotional payoff think it is to then give us this charred corpse? Similarly, the inventively choreographed sex scenes, often accompanied by Desplat’s florid score, never stop feeling like desperation, especially when they look like this:

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And if you think you’ve seen this shot before, yes, you totally have:

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You’re welcome!