Calls is the very antithesis of televisual soma. In fact it’s so jarring and discomfiting and horrible that I think this week’s column damn near cost me my marriage. ‘Why are we having to watch this hideous drivel?’ grumbled the Fawn, who felt cheated of a soothing night glued to our new addiction, the French series Call My Agent! (Netflix). ‘Because it’s my job and this is a new thing and Call My Agent! isn’t,’ I said.
So I had to watch on my own. I do understand the Fawn’s objections. Really, it’s more like radio than TV and might work better enlivening a long car journey. There are no attractive images to look at — no actors or scenery or anything like that — just random electronic squiggles and snatches of text, spelling out the muffled, often hard-to-decipher phone conversations being played out before you.
In episode one, a man in LA is talking to his ex-girlfriend in New York when a mysterious creature (not human, she thinks) looms outside her window and, by the time the cops get to her, has all but torn her to shreds. Meanwhile, the man has sex with a woman in his bed who he thinks is his new partner — but then is disturbed to get a call from his actual new partner (who clearly isn’t the mystery person in his bed), who then screams that her baby has been taken. It gets even weirder after that.
The next episode was more comprehensible and more disturbing. A feckless, fair-weather boyfriend has driven out into the desert in a fit of pique because his girlfriend has just told him she’s pregnant and he can’t cope. But when they speak on the phone there is a clear temporal mismatch: he thinks he has been gone for a few hours, whereas she thinks he has been missing for days.
With each conversation — the best friend with whom he was hoping to shack up for a few days, his worried mom, his now clearly sick mom five years later on the verge of death, his now grown-up son — time accelerates even as our main guy remains stuck in the same day. It’s all the more poignant and painful because you realize what’s going on long before he does. This would have made a great episode of The Twilight Zone, the eeriness and appalling nature of the chap’s predicament lingering with you for days.
There are nine episodes in all, atmospherically directed by Fede Alvarez, with a starry cast including Lily Collins, Nick Jonas and Nicholas Braun (Greg from Succession: when are we going to see season three, I wonder), culminating in a big reveal where each apparently discrete episode suddenly makes sense in terms of a unifying apocalyptic event. Clearly, in TV-land if your parents understand what’s going on and the scenario doesn’t weird you out, then the show has failed. This is the new normal, as we also saw from WandaVision.
Calls is the American version of a series originally broadcast in French (created by Timothée Hochet). I have a lot of time for French TV drama (Les Revenants and Le Bureau are probably my two favorites) because the French, being so bloody-mindedly chauvinistic, have such a powerful and distinct cultural identity almost antithetical to that of the Anglosphere.
Their dramatic characters behave according to a rulebook whose codes are refreshingly mystifying, which makes it harder to predict how they’ll react in any given situation. Some of it’s obvious: they’re definitely more likely to a) have sex — and very casual sex at that, enjoyed with the same relaxed insouciance we in Britain might experience on brewing a nice cup of tea — and b) smoke a cigarette. But some of it is plain odd, borne, I think, of a culture where they are much more serious and profound about everything, from themselves to their traditions; and also where they seem to be more passionate about stuff, flying off the handle for what we more cold-blooded and flippant Anglos might see as the most trivial reasons.
I’ll come back to Call My Agent! when I’ve got to the most recent season. Meanwhile, I’d just like to give a brief mention to Marseille — a short-lived Netflix drama with Gérard Depardieu as the on-off Mayor of Marseilles (as the British spell it, though not the French for some odd orthographical reason).
Even though it’s perfectly enjoyable for the most part, I can understand why it wasn’t recommissioned after the car-crash second series, so implausible in places that it felt like the dénouement of a Scooby-Doo episode. There was one element that particularly jarred for me and which I thought illustrated perfectly the huge gulf between France’s culture and the Anglosphere’s: a major plot strand that made sense only if you think that abortion is basically a good thing and that well-distributed ‘family planning’ clinics are the sine qua non of a civilized modern society. Which the French, apparently, still do. But us, less so, I suspect.