“Oi fatman, give a real muslim a light.” It’s approaching day-break outside a small bar on a small square in Paris. I’m discussing the cult French tv cop show Engrenages with a couple of lads who are leaning on scooters, lighting a joint and swapping banter while local barmen, police and hustlers clock off duty with a beer. Around us market traders, all shouting in Arabic, set up stalls at one of the fruit’n’veg markets in Bastille that was used as a location in the coming, third series of the cult tv show.
Engrenages, or Spiral as it's known in the UK, is the first French television drama to have ever been picked up by the BBC. It’s the first show to attract the following that French cable channel Canal+ dreamt of when envisaging quality, home-made productions that could emulate the success of American channels like HBO. Sure, there are other French crime tv series, Braquo stars Jean-Hugues Anglade (Killing Zoe) or Pigalle, La Nuit but neither have matched the slow burn, high pressured pace of Engrenages or the realistic and dynamic characters.
The first series of Engrenages introduced Captain Laure Berthaud and her team of lieutenants solving cases on the streets of Paris while in parallel, young deputy prosecutor Pierre Clément tried to advance his career amongst intrigue and politics that happen in the corridoors of the national court-house, Palais De Justice. It was with the second series however, where the action shifted out to the high-rise banlieu’s in the notorious 93 area postcode that the word-of-mouth buzz in real Parisian café’s such as the one I am in now, really shifted up a few gears.
“Mr. Aziz and the Larbi brothers,” smile the lads on their scooters, recounting scenes from series two where actor Reda Kateb (Un Prophéte) plays a drug dealer/wannabe rapper who crosses sibling king-pins higher up the criminal food chain, “we can take you to meet brothers like Aziz in the banlieu’s right now.” I tell them I’m interviewing one of the shows writers and actress Audrey Fleurot who plays the shows uber-bitch, lawyer Karlsson. “Tell them they got it right,” says one guy referring to the scripts inclusion of Verlan, the ever changing and complicated French street slang. “And as for the redhead (Karlsson),” he says winking and waving his joint, “tell her if she needs anything, come to us. If lawyers looked as good as her I’d make sure I got arrested every day.”
In Engrenages, everybody’s under pressure and noboby’s hands are clean. Each series is hooked around a central case but around it are rich housewives, squatters, hookers and undercover cops from all the different divisions in Paris. It delivers a visceral portrayal of the social under classes and bourgeois alike. The legal system is less a God protecting the common people and more a system of cogs that, if mastered can bring fame and power to the lawyers, judges and politicians. The cinematography uses real locations across Paris, meshing all the characters into a city that’s feels infinitely more like daily life in Paris than the flowery depiction in Dior adverts or cinema.
Later, at a totally different café opposite Opéra, the massive gold gilded and bustling tourist attraction in central Paris I’m waiting to meet Eric de Barahir, writer on Engrenages. He joined the writing team on series two and, surprisingly, is still a superintedent on the Paris police force. In person I’m not sure I could pick him out of a crowd. Perhaps this is intentional because in truth he’s worked some of Paris’ bloodiest criminal cases in his twenty years on the force.
"In Engrenages, everybody’s under pressure and noboby’s hands are clean."
“Now I have a less physically active job in that I don’t do stake-outs and raids anymore as you see Captain Berthaud do in the show but I used to, everything you see is based on cases that I’ve worked.” He confirms the portrayal of 36, quai des Orfèvres (the mythical French equivalent to Scotland Yard in series three) by saying “In my opinion it’s only better portrayed in documentaries.” I ask about some of the secondary characters, namely Judge Machard who despises the younger Pierre Clément for being jumped up do-gooder who needs to fall into line. “Of course this is drama so we show extremes, with Machard, there aren’t many like him, for the most part people are nice and things work well but have I come across people like him in the system? Of course.”
During filming Barahir is a technical consultant. In one of the biggest scenes in series three he advised the director and actors. “We advised how the police cars would swoop in, which positions the drivers would aim for in such an arrest because that’s the first thing. After that, how each police-man would arrest, who they would take first, how they would round up the criminals as in real life. We gave specific notes on how they would handle and deal with females, make sure they’re not manhandled and how the police keep eachother up to speed so that the others are free to go after the big criminals.”
32 year old Audrey Fleurot has caused a stir in French film industry circles for her portrayal of the brilliantly complex and dark lawyer, Joséphine Karlsson. In person she’s a funnier but equally sardonic version of Karlsson. Her onscreen persona is a cold and calculating, mercenary lawyer who’ll stop at nothing to get where she wants to go. “What’s interesting about this character is that we dont know what family or milieu she comes from,” says Fleurot. “I like the fact that the writers haven’t tried to justify her motivations. Maybe she has had a crazy childhood but maybe not but really we dont care.”
I pass the messages from the scooter boys to Fleurot and she laughs. “I’m originally from Mantes-La-Jolie in the banlieu’s myself” she says spoofing a little street slang, “I fell in love with acting as my father was the duty fireman for a local theatre. I’ve had incredible luck with this role because as a woman you can have a whole acting career and not play one role that gives you palpitations and makes your heart beat. I love playing this character because one hopes that at some point in your career you have the right to play “the bitch”. I’m finally authorised to be it, to have the right to behave as you never would in real life, it’s such a pleasure. At the same time the character is not that imaginary because I’ve seen it in the world of lawyers. I researched this and as a woman you have to build an armour. Karlsson is losing ground, she’s not that courageous or strong, she just instinctively knows that if you don’t show your weaknesses and fears people wont see it but what makes this woman stand out is that she’s built a shield that’s so tough it’s a weapon.”
Engrenages series 1 and 2 are available as DVD box sets. Series 3 is scheduled to be broadcast on BBC4 later this year.