You’d have thought that Emily In Paris would have spelt a swift end to all things French and streaming. Playing on every tired cliché of the proud Gallic nation – its locals are generally lazy, horny, rude, unwashed or any combination of the above – this facile mash-up of the Paris episodes of Sex And The City and a wit-free Kimmy Schmidt, even as it became a so-bad-it’s-good hit, could only have further cemented the idea that France is only of use, in televisual terms, as a backdrop for Americans to look pretty in.
Yet France is having something of a streaming revolution right now. Netflix is alight over the fourth season of Call My Agent!, the drama delving behind the scenes at Parisian talent agency ASK which, since it premiered in 2015, has featured major French stars including Juliette Binoche, Jean Reno and Isabelle Huppert playing themselves in individual episodes, and has even drawn appearances from Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sigourney Weaver in the latest run. Hot on its talons comes Lupin, a crime thriller series based around the mysterious, chameleonic “gentleman thief” Assane Diop, while police procedural Spiral – France’s own Silent Witness – has been slow-burning on BBC Four since its first series in 2006, suddenly gathering attention as the Gallic invasion gathers pace.
For Lupin in particular, the route to a mass audience was a tried and tested one, familiar to continental audiences – it’s dubbed, so well that it’s barely distinguishable from a US show, bar the scenery. And it’s not alone. Osmosis, the French sci-fi Netflix series where The Matrix met Hinge, cancelled last year after just one season, also got the English overdub treatment, as did 2019’s period drama The Bonfire Of Destiny, based on the 1897 fire at the annual charity event Bazar et la Charité in Paris, and France’s kind of voodoo Trainspotting series Mortel. Recent rom-com series The Hook-Up Plan even announced its arrival as “the new French series on Netflix” with an English-language homage to Love Actually’s doorstep Bob Dylan scene.
This alone suggests a significant shift in attitude, that French productions are becoming more open to catering to global streaming audiences. For decades, due to the lower budgets enforced by America’s reluctance to buy foreign language films, France has been firmly associated with arthouse cinema and protective of its reputation for intelligent, challenging movies. When films from its thriving home industry have broken through onto the international stage, it has been very much on their own terms: with an Amelie, a La Haine or 2011’s Oscar-winning silent movie The Artist. For so many new French shows to deign to a dubbing, then, might be seen as selling out or surrendering credibility for wider success, but it’s also evidence of an acceptance that the old, restrictive market models are being broken down by streaming, that there’s a certain universal brotherhood in the new, utopian golden age of television.
And as the appeal of Call My Agent! attests, French productions are having their moment not just by finally playing the global game. As access to international franchises becomes easier, territories are able to showcase their homegrown aesthetic to an increasingly open-minded worldwide viewership, opening up the opportunity for every region to capture the cultural zeitgeist in the way Nordic noir did a decade ago. And just as crime thrillers such as The Killing, The Bridge and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo used the icy menace of the Scandinavian landscape to their stylistic advantage, the new French wave plays on a unique characteristic too: sophistication.
An American remake of Call My Agent!, for example, might end up virtually indistinguishable from any number of office-based shows, from 30 Rock to Parks And Recreation; it stands out precisely because of the unstated air of chic insouciance exuded by actors such as Camille Cottin and Thibault de Montalembert. Likewise, even dubbed into English, Lupin’s Omar Sy brings a smouldering presence and distinction to a character that would have had some of England’s finest thespians chewing cockney bricks were it in the hands of Guy Ritchie.
It’s a wave that’s only swelling; Call My Agent! appears to have created a hunger for French TV’s cultured urbanity and stylish grit which Netflix are keen to feed. Hostage drama Inhuman Resources, starring Eric Cantona, is just one of the French series rolling around Netflix’s new releases list, alongside Family Business, the cannabis comedy drama which has just been renewed for a third season. A French streaming revolution is here, and catch it while you can – it’s the only export from across the Channel we’ll be seeing for a while.