Posted: August 15, 2019
he best stories, we like to believe, are morally uplifting, with pure, noble heroes triumphing over evil, despicable villains. But is that really true? Don’t we also have a soft spot for rogues, hellions, knaves, scoundrels, and miscreants—especially when they are smart, irreverent, and good-looking? Much as we hope to see goodness triumph in the end, don’t we sometimes take the side of wickedness, if only for the sake of a good story?
If you agree with this quick take on human nature, then let me push your envelope. Imagine a fictional character who works for the Nazi intelligence agency Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in a village in occupied France. Imagine him intellectually gifted, contemptuous of Nazi ideology, fluent in French, and so devilishly handsome that he kindles a lifelong passion in the gorgeous, red-haired, emotionally unstable wife of the kind and honorable village doctor. When the local Communist cell manages to kill a German army officer, imagine this same handsome SD agent interrogating witnesses by burning them with cigarettes and threatening their children.
Is it okay to empathize with such a character? Most people would say no, not even for the sake of a good story. But what if the story were so humanely conceived, capaciously told, and historically accurate that you find yourself empathizing, to varying degrees, with scores of characters, including many who choose, or are driven to commit, evil acts? Some of the greatest writers can do this—Shakespeare and Tolstoy come to mind, with their godlike ability to invite us into the heart and soul of every character they create. But in all my years of reviewing film and television, I have never seen a long-form TV series display that same godlike ability. Until now.
Microcosm of World War II
Un Village Français (“A French Village”) is set in Villeneuve, a fictional community in the Jura mountains of eastern France, which on June 12, 1940, was overrun by the German Blitzkrieg. By placing Villeneuve close to the Swiss border and adjacent to the demarcation line between German-occupied France and Vichy, the series is able to present a finely detailed, historically accurate microcosm of French society during the war. I should add that this does not keep it from being binge-worthy, even though the likely bingers will be adults, not adolescents.
The series begins on a lovely summer morning, and for the first 17 minutes we watch the men and women of Villeneuve going about their business. One or two are mindful of the Wehrmacht’s approach, but most are more preoccupied with their daily lives than with impending catastrophe. But then a lone German warplane appears in the sky and, spotting an anti-aircraft gun in a meadow with its camouflage removed by curious children on a school picnic, the plane zooms in and opens fire, killing one boy and a teacher. Another boy flees into the forest, and the saga begins: a whole season for each of the war years, plus two for the aftermath.
The first thing to be said about A French Village is that it departs from the standard French narrative of the Occupation as a time of stark moral choice between evil collaboration and virtuous resistance. In a 2009 interview with the London Telegraph, head screenwriter Frédéric Krivine commented: “In 1940, no one knows what ‘occupation’ is…. It is just each person’s own life. Nor does anyone know what will be the fate of the Jews.” The same article also quotes Jean-Pierre Azéma, a prominent historian of the Occupation who served as a consultant on the series: “Men and women argued, they had financial or family problems, religious or political experiences, they had love affairs—all these pushed them down this or that path which at the time had none of the significance which we accord to it in retrospect.”
A French Village also departs from the contemporary long-form TV approach to period drama, which is retrospective to a fault. The period could be Tudor England, Renaissance Italy, 1920s Madrid, or Northern Ireland during the Troubles—the setting scarcely matters, except to the production designer. What matters is that the moral and political sensibilities of the most “relatable” characters align as closely as possible with those of 21st-century progressives. It also matters that the product be mindlessly addictive. In the words of TV Guide: “While the historical dramas might not be super accurate—hey, at least The Tudors covered the basics in between those steamy love scenes—they make history exciting with high-stakes drama and opulent costumes that are most certainly way out of your budget.”
Against such criteria, how does A French Village stack up? For opulent costumes, we could look to the haute couture worn by Hortense (Audrey Fleurot), the unfaithful wife of the village doctor, Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci); and by Jeannine (Emmanuelle Bach), the scheming wife of a local businessman, Raymond Schwartz (Thierry Godard). But the effect of these costumes is not glamorous, because in occupied Villeneuve, dressing à la mode is a sure sign of moral obtuseness. Hortense gains our sympathy only after losing her wardrobe, while Jeannine remains voguish—and odious—throughout.
As for steamy love scenes, the most convincing are those between dashing, mettlesome Raymond and graceful, sagacious Marie Germain (Nade Dieu), a young tenant farmer working on land owned by Raymond while her husband is off fighting the Germans. (Marie later becomes a heroine of the non-Communist Resistance.) But unlike the typical Hollywood sex scenes, which recycle the same puerile, wham-bang clichés every time, the erotic encounters in A French Village are handled with maturity, subtlety, and (dare I say it?) savoir-faire, making each encounter distinct in ways that mesh with the lovers’ humanity (or lack of it).
A Tangle of Difficult Choices
A French Village was produced by France 3, the second largest public TV channel in France, which invested an average of $637,000 in each of its 72 episodes (currently streaming on Amazon Prime with English subtitles). The first airing of the series, which occurred between 2009 and 2017, attracted an average audience of 3.4 million, which sounds small but is in fact large—because, unlike their British and American counterparts, French audiences still hold le cinéma in higher esteem than la télévision. If this attitude is changing, I daresay it is not just because technology has blurred the distinction between the two, but also because A French Village has revealed the artistic potential of the latter.
No short story can do what a novel can do, and no feature film can do what A French Village does, which is fill a huge canvas with the complex reactions of an entire community to the catalyst of invasion, followed by five years of increasingly harsh occupation. Over time, the pattern in most longform TV series is for the writers to add increasingly bizarre and arbitrary plot twists, in an effort to extend the sell-by date. This is not true of A French Village. Here, multiple plot lines grow out of a tangle of difficult choices made under pressure of fear, pain, rage, desire, and desperation; and the proper word to describe them is not arbitrary but tragic.
Case in point: the aforementioned killing of a German army officer by local Communists is ill-considered, badly executed, and devastating in its long-term repercussions. These are largely due to conflicts, not only between the Communist and non-Communist camps supporting the Resistance, but also within them. Particularly striking is a conflict rarely, if ever, depicted in American stories about the war: the clash between the pragmatic instincts of the local Communists and the dogmatic orders emanating from Moscow.
In Season 1, Moscow’s orders reflect the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which pledged neutrality between the USSR and Nazi Germany. When the cell in Villeneuve is thereby ordered to condemn Winston Churchill and Marshal Philippe Pétain along with Adolf Hitler, the senselessness of the order prompts a contorted exchange between hard-liner Edmond (Antoine Mathieu) and Marcel Larcher (Fabrizio Rongione), the rebellious younger brother of Daniel, the village doctor:
Edmond: “We have to watch out for Pétain and Laval. The two orphans. The plutocrats of London and Vichy.”
Marcel: “What about the Germans?”
Edmond: “The Germans, that’s a typical red herring. The Nazi is the real foe, not the German. Most German soldiers are not Nazis. They’re workers in uniform, just like us.”
Marcel: “I understand. But we can’t recruit people based on this.”
Marcel: “In the North, the Germans are the problem, not Pétain. Curfews, requisitions, humiliations. That’s the Germans!”
Edmond: “You’re questioning Party ideology.”
These exchanges grow more absurd as Edmond strains to discipline the thinking not just of Marcel but of two additional comrades: Suzanne (Constance Dollé), a free spirit who joined the cell because she hates the Nazis and loves Marcel; and Max (Yann Goven), a staunch party man who nonetheless thinks for himself (and is later disillusioned during a prolonged stay in Stalinist Russia).
Then, in Season 2, the party line changes with the break-up of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In a complete about-face, Moscow now orders all French cadres to carry out terrorist attacks on random Germans. The recklessness of this order is bad enough, but things get worse when the Party sends a callow, arrogant youth called Yvon (Cyril Descours) to direct the operation.
This greatly vexes Marcel, whose finely tuned moral instincts resemble those of his older brother, Daniel, despite the two having taken very different paths in life. Because their severe, haut bourgeois father favored Daniel and behaved coldly and cruelly toward both Marcel and his long-suffering mother, Marcel is unusually sensitive to slights.
He is also extraordinarily kind and loving—to his sickly wife, who dies early in Season 1, and to his young son, Gustave (Maxim Driesen). Some of the most tender, funny, poignant scenes in the series involve Marcel and Gustave, making it all the more painful to see them wrenched apart by a single fateful act—the killing of the German officer—which Marcel tries hard to prevent.
Enter Heinrich Müller (Richard Sammel), the charming SD agent I started with. When Marcel steals a gun from a German soldier otherwise engaged in the local brothel, the German commander orders the execution of 20 hostages, including several people with no ties to either the Communist or non-Communist Resistance. This provokes an act of courage from Daniel, who in addition to being the village doctor has been pressed into service as mayor. Citing German military code, Daniel volunteers, as mayor, “to take the hostages’ place.” That offer is rendered moot when Yvon and Marcel use the stolen gun to shoot the German officer. (Yvon pulls the trigger against Marcel’s warning.) The Germans and the compliant French police launch an aggressive manhunt, and Yvon is captured and tortured to death.
But with Marcel still at large, the 20 jailed hostages are still doomed. Daniel meets with them and promises to do all he can. When his efforts lead nowhere, he agrees with great reluctance to a plan devised by Henri Servier (Cyril Couton), the mousy little sub-prefect whose acquiescence to German demands has long offended Daniel’s sense of honor. The plan is to strike a bargain: if the Germans will agree to execute only ten hostages and let the others go free, then Daniel and Servier will assume the burden of choosing which ten will face the firing squad.
A moral philosopher watching Daniel debate this plan with Servier and one or two other confidants might be impressed by the scope and comprehensiveness of their arguments. But—I mean this as a compliment—the average viewer caught up in the drama might not even notice that a debate is occurring. There are no set pieces, no stilted speeches channeling the opinions of some engagé screenwriter, director, or producer. When these characters agonize over right and wrong, it feels perfectly natural, because their agonizing arises from life-and-death pressures experienced in the moment. Far be it from me to flatter the French, but in the present political and social mood of the United States, it is nice to be reminded that ordinary human beings are capable of reason.
The Rest of the Canvas
The plot line I have been tracing is only one among many. I could also trace that of Raymond Schwartz, navigating cannily through a wretched marriage, a passionate love affair, the ups and downs of wartime business, and a begrudging commitment to the non-Communist Resistance. Or that of the devout young teacher Lucienne Borderie (Marie Kremer), conceiving a child with a soulful German soldier named Kurt (Samuel Theis), then losing Kurt to the war and agreeing, with deep ambivalence, to marry the gifted and ebullient school principal, Jules Bériot (François Loriquet), who knows all about Kurt but hopes that one day Lucienne will learn to love him.
Or I could focus on the riveting events of Season 3, when a train carrying 150 non-citizen Jews stops in Villeneuve and the village is ordered to detain them until another train can be summoned to deport them to the east. Bériot agrees to house all 150 people, including several families, in the school. But overall, the village is not very accommodating, in part because it is already short of food and medicine, and in part because (as noted above by head screenwriter Frédéric Krivine) the villagers have not yet fully grasped “what will be the fate of the Jews.”
The shadow of that fate quickly lengthens, darkening the lives not only of the non-citizen Jews passing through Villeneuve but also of its Jewish residents, including the former school principal, Madame Morhange (Nathalie Cerda), a French citizen deprived of her job by the Germans; and young Sarah Meyer (Laura Stainkrycer), the daughter of Jewish refugees who works as a domestic.
At the same time, the shrewd, genial chief of police, Henri De Kervern (Patrick Descamps) has been replaced by a young go-getter called Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob), who despite his eagerness to beat the German police at their own game falls in love with Rita (Axelle Maricq), another Jewish refugee living in Villeneuve with her aged mother. When the SS sets a quota of additional Jews to be rounded up, Marchetti manages to save Rita, but at the price of secretly arranging to have her mother arrested instead.
Finally, I could describe the reprieve offered in Season 4, when a young man named Antoine (Martin Loizillon) retreats into the mountains to escape a forced-labor decree and, joining a group of like-minded runaways, emerges as a leader in the non-Communist Resistance. The reprieve comes while Antoine’s fledgling maquisards are preparing, somewhat impatiently, for a chance to fight the Germans, and one of their number, a poet named Claude (Alexandre Hamidi), suggests that a good way to pass the time would be to stage a play. In clumsier hands, the idea of a pastoral interlude in late 1943 would not work. But here it does, and we are briefly transported to a muddier, grubbier, but still magical Forest of Arden.
The Ice of Truth, the Fire of Lies
But now let me return to the plot line I began with: the ill-conceived killing of the German army officer that sets into motion the destruction of the bond between Marcel and his son, Gustave, among other calamities. Chief among these is the trial, in autumn 1945, of two Villeneuve citizens, Daniel Larcher and Henri Servier, of “war crimes” committed while “collaborating” with the Nazi invaders. The trial occurs in Season 6, and while I appreciate the attempt made in Season 7 to tie up loose ends and provide closure about the postwar lives of the surviving characters, for me A French Village ends with this astonishing trial. Here is an eloquent description of it by the Australian critic Jane Goodall:
After years of living with vicious perversions of justice, attempts at formal adjudication of the rights and wrongs of the past five years only produce another order of perversion. The trial scenes involving two major characters are some of the most painful to watch. The prosecutor, played by distinguished theatre actor François Chattot, treats the courtroom as his stage, engaging in flights of rhetoric about the fate of innocent victims, the persecution of Jewish citizens, the scenes in which children are torn from their parents.
But even as he does this we are made to hate him, because he is distorting the facts of the particular case. It is all in the cause of finding an outlet for righteous indignation and a necessary sacrifice to appease the collective need for vengeance. Ultimately, there must be another batch of executions, and this is just an exercise in arbitrarily choosing victims. One of the remaining résistants quotes La Fontaine: “Man is of ice for the truth, of fire for lies.”
Words to ponder in our own parlous era. Fortunately, the filmmakers do not deny all hope of redemption. In the death scenes of Servier, Marchetti, and a handful of others, we are granted a glimpse of what justice looks like when it is tempered with repentance, forgiveness, and grace. We should not be surprised, I guess, that those qualities do not come from angry people settling political scores.