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This original French crime drama from Netflix (starring Gerard Depardieu) feels very American in a pretty bad way.
There are a million reasons to go to France. But there's only one reason to watch a TV series created there: If it's really good.
Marseille, the Gerard Depardieu-led Netflix series that dropped all eight episodes on Thursday, is not very good. In many spots, it's terrible. You'd think the French accents would class-up the offerings the way that a thoroughly British one has raised the stature of innumerable BBC offerings of the past, but no — the problems of Marseille can't be overcome either by accent or by naked French actresses or stylized gunplay, all of which are heavy elements of the series.
No matter how the words sound in Marseille, they are not assembled in a way that makes them fresh or compelling. Even Depardieu, whose late-career work has been erratic but who anchors this series believably, can't overcome the contrivances he's given.
On top of that, the series has an oppressive score that becomes, rather quickly, both annoying and then funny. That was probably not the intent. But watching with subtitles and listening to the strains of the intrusive, over-the-top classical music creates one of the weirdest experiences in recent TV-viewing memory: a French television series that looks like it's trying to be an American crime story that ends almost every scene with musical flourishes that recall Spanish-language telenovelas.
If Netflix was going for that international vibe — and it clearly hopes Marseille can cross as many borders as possible, not just those in North America — it finds it here, but not to the effect it was probably hoping for.
While not nearly the mess that Marco Polo is/was creatively for the online streamer, Marseille suffers from not seeming very French at all — and that may be on purpose if the series is hoping to attract an international audience.
Yes, it's an entirely French production, with French actors speaking their native language and various France-specific nods, plus some gorgeous aerial shots of the city from directors Florent Siri and Thomas Gilou (who created the project along with Dan Franck), but what your eyes actually see, were you to turn off the sound, is a drama series that looks splashy and American and as predictable as any of our midlevel fare.
Netflix itself is doing nothing wrong here – the streaming service has a number of high-end series from other countries that get acclaimed and, theoretically (because Netflix doesn't release viewing numbers), are being seen across the world. Netflix wants the world to watch, whether the viewers speak the native language of the series or not (or, in the case of Americans watching the brilliant Happy Valley, whether or not they have to turn on the subtitles even though it's in English).
And while the interior scenes might look overly familiar to American viewers, the actual views of Marseille are lovely, even if the French don't consider it the best face of the country (pretty much every Old World country is beautiful to an American).
No, the problem is mainly in the writing. Marseille is based around Depardieu as Robert Taro, who has been mayor of the city for 20 years and is passing the torch to his hand-picked successor, Lucas Barres (Benoit Magimel). His departing gift, shepherded in large part by Barres, is to deliver a casino and hotels and other big-money magnets to the port of Marseille, so that legal gambling can take out the mafia running all the illegal trades in the city. The mafia clearly doesn't want the casino, so mafia members, lounging on yachts and such, use their connections in the gang-infested urban housing ghettos to cause havoc. You can identify the mob thugs because, well, French or not, they look like all the American bad guys look.
For his part, Depardieu is solid as Taro because when he's engaged he can still bring the heat — and in Marseille the heat begins to rise by the end of the first episode, when it's clear that his plan to push through a casino is going to hit a traitor-influenced snag. Taro's plans to fade into the sunset are thus upended and he wants back in the game because he thinks — very predictably — “I'm the only one who can stop [the mafia].” And, with a heavy sigh, he says, “I'm worried about Marseille.”
Well, so is The Last Panthers on Sundance, a miniseries that globe trots to a lot of places but stays a good while in Marseilles, exploring the influence of the local mafia, guns and drugs and violence and the public housing ghettos — an effort more ambitious and better-executed than Marseille, precisely because it's better-written and more interested in complex stories with gray areas.
Marseille is, first and foremost, into its own visuals — as of the opening episode it wants to be grand and gorgeous, from Depardieu snorting cocaine in elaborately lit confines to tanned, leggy women in elaborate French lingerie that then comes off to those aforementioned aerial shots.
But two things interrupt the mood. First, Siri and Gilou almost never let the most interesting visuals play out, preferring to either get back to the dialogue (which is the weakest part by far) or to layer voiceovers of previously spoken bits of dialogue on top of the scene (again, not helping) like a spoken-word video. Secondly, not trusting the inherent beauty of Marseilles (that must be a French thing, right, like not trusting that there's beauty in New Jersey because you prefer New York City?), the directors employ far more visual tricks than necessary, particularly a dreadful reliance on slow-motion, which comes in a close second to the score as most ruinous to whatever joys you might find in the series.
So, music that's a deal-breaker, tiresome slow-mo, plot twists that you can see coming pretty clearly and a glossy American-style mediocrity tossed into the core of it. While that should give anyone pause, it's not like Marseille is unwatchable — just overly familiar with too much fromage for discerning viewers.
Netflix could easily be right that Depardieu plus some nudity (not his), gunplay, Molotov cocktails, aerial-view porn, French lingerie and the bodies that wear it all — mixed into an easily followable story — might just work beyond a lot of borders.
But you'd be better off tracking down The Last Panthers if you want more of a challenge.
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Benoit Magimel, Geraldine Pailhas, Stephane Caillard
Created by: Florent Siri, Dan Franck, Thomas Gilou
Streaming now on Netflix