March 20 is French Language Day as declared by the United Nations, and that’s no small thing around my house. Both my wife and I have been brushing up on the literal Lingua Franca as one of our many pandemic self-improvement projects. Ironically we’ve gotten more serious now that the prime crying need to move to France has now passed (as of January 20, know’m sayin’?), but ya never know. It may come in handy in the future. Anyway, my wife and I have each been going about it differently. She does a daily lesson with Duolingo; I’ve dusted off an old Berlitz record. But TOGETHER we watch French movies and television and that’s where things click. I’ve previously blogged about the terrific French historical drama Bonfire of Destiny. Our current diversion has even greater relevance for the show biz lover.
Call My Agent! (also available on Netflix) ran from 2015 to 2020. I vastly prefer its original French title Dix Pour Cent (10 Percent) but no one ever went broke dumbing down for the English-speaking public. Fortunately, that concession represents the extent of the stooping, as this is an incredibly smart and endlessly entertaining show. It’s set in a high powered talent Paris talent agency, the French equivalent of CAA or William Morris, but smaller. Magically, this fictional firm, ASK (Agence Samuel Kerr, after its recently deceased founder) seems to represent every living famous French movie star, each one of whom guest stars every episode, people like Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Dujardin and Jean Reno, and occasionally non-French ones like Monica Bellucci and Sigourney Weaver. They’re all good sports, playing satirical versions of themselves as demanding, insecure divas requiring constant hand-holding. This is the fuel for much farce and melodrama involving the main characters, the agents and their assistants, who are constantly putting out fires, jumping through hoops, scheming, groveling, conniving, cracking whips, and seizing the main chance in order to keep their agency solvent and their flighty clients employed and out of trouble.
Because their work is so high pressure and round-the-clock, requiring so much devotion and self-sacrifice, it is like a blasphemous parody of much higher callings with much higher stakes — say, surgeons, or priests to the poor. They are constantly patching things up and ministering. And they all have different styles of going about it, according to their personalities. Andréa (Camille Cottin) is a hard-nosed, hard-working, and hard-partying lesbian who’s into living the show biz life to the hilt (although that quality evolves as the series progresses). Gabriel (Grégory Montel) has a much more laid-back, nurturing style — he is “L.A.” to Andrea’s “New York”. He’s a bit of a shlemiel in his personal life, but he’s good at what he does. The actor who plays him reminds me a little of Griffin Dunn, mixed with a young Fritz Feld. Arlette (Liliane Rovère) is the obligatory old-timer, a holdover from the days of jazz clubs and the nouveau vague; she’s kind of like the Spirit of Paris. Like the others, she has sacrificed a personal life for this job; she compensates by having a close relationship with her little dog Jean Gabin. Dishonesty being an integral part of the job, misunderstandings, sometimes farcical, sometimes dire, are constantly exploding by the day, by the minute, by the hour. All of the characters lie to each other, but the only one who sometimes crosses the line into betrayal is Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert), often a foil and authority figure for the others to push against. If he is the series’ Frank Burns, his fanatically devoted assistant Noémie (Laure Calamy) is his combination Hot Lips and Radar. (Her superpower, which saves the day, more than once is scheduling). Central to it all is Camille (Fanny Sidney), Mathias’s secret love child, initially our Virgil for the journey, who later becomes a junior agent. Other characters include Hervé (Nicolas Maury), Gabriel’s arch gay assistant; Sofia (Stéfi Celma) the beautiful black receptionist who aspires to be a star; and Hicham (Assaad Bouab), a ruthless capitalist who takes the place over for awhile but gets frustrated in his attempts to make the partners care about numbers as much as people.
One of my first jobs in New York was in an office rather like this. It is a delight getting to vicariously enjoy it without the agida of being inside it. There’s less vomiting when it’s fictional!
While we are on the subject of French TV, I would also highly reccomend Lupin, also on Netflix. This witty caper series stars Omar Sy as a man who is obsessed with Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief character Arsène Lupin, drawing from his books for a series of jobs designed to clear the name of his father, who was falsely accused of stealing a rare jewel. There are as yet only five episodes of this stylish series, which premiered in January, as production was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately for Call My Agent! the show had wrapped the final epiosde of 24 just before the pandemic hit, so you can binge the whole thing in its entirety. I highly recommend doing so. It is a rollicking good time, that frankly is making me want to move to Paris in the way I once wanted to move to New York. Somebody Call My Agent!