French Crime and Thriller Series Go Off the Beaten Track

·5-min read

The setting: a small resort, Les Cimes, in the Swiss Alps, a stone’s throw from the French border. The moment: the end of ski season, tourists have left, time seems to be suspended. The plot: a corpse is found, tied up, with an edelweiss in its mouth. The protagonist: Captain Sterenn Peiry (Marina Hands) leads the investigation. She still mourns her 15-year-old daughter, killed three years before in an avalanche.

So much for the beginning of “Off Season” (Hors saison), a Franco-Swiss police series, produced by Akka Films, Gaumont Television with RTS and France Télévisions, and beautifully filmed in CinémaScope by Pierre Monnard.

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This thrilling six-part series, presented to buyers at the French TV market Unifrance Rendez-Vous in Biarritz, is best in class in the art of constantly misleading the viewer. From the very first minutes, the plot thickens: a second corpse, found in the same gloomy setting, but on the French side, makes the shadow of a serial killer lurk on Les Cimes and brings into the game French policeman Lyes Bouaouni (the excellent Sofiane Zermani, a.k.a. the rapper Fianso). When a third layer is added: Sterenn’s son kills his girlfriend and flees the scene. We are left wondering: how far can a mother go to save her only child?

At the end of each episode, the unbearable cliffhanger makes you want to know what happens next. “These kinds of twists and turns are very appealing to the networks at a time when they are looking for ways to keep their audience,” Cécilia Rossignol, exec VP, international sales and development at Gaumont, tells Variety. At Unifrance Rendez-vous, this dark series with a French touch has generated interest. “In particular from the U.S., Greece, Germany and Italy. But it is too early to announce firm sales,” she adds. “People really appreciate that ‘Off Season’ is not mainstream and that it goes deep into the souls of the characters, trying to understand their journey.”

In “Off Season,” the character of the female police chief trying to come to terms with a personal tragedy (the death of her daughter) might seem clichéd at first as this profile is so common in female-led police series. But Hands gives it a powerful dimension, and opposite her, the presence of a male police officer whose personal life also takes up a lot of space in his mind, creates an interesting dynamic.

The success of crime and thriller series does not weaken in the French production sector. More and more often, women play the main part. Like in the three original series commissioned by the French channel 13ème Rue: “I Killed my Husband” (J’ai tué mon mari), “Marion” and “Elle’s Kitchen” (Cuisine interne), selected at the upcoming La Rochelle Fiction Festival, in the best 52-minute series category. “There was a real need for stronger female characters to better reflect reality,” says Virginie Boireaux, HAGO’s managing director, handling international sales.

“Some people call it opportunism – which is not a criticism, as long as the project is well executed. Since #MeToo, there has been an awareness of the need to show something other than caricatures: the housewife, the victim or on the contrary, Wonder Woman or Black Widow… There are plenty of types of women in between, and it’s a great thing that this is finally being brought to the screen, whatever the reason is. In these three series, there are no superwomen, they are all ‘normal’ and move forward, impose themselves or reveal themselves thanks to their will, their resilience, their experience. They are very human.”

In “Marion,” inspired by the novels of Danielle Thiéry, the protagonist Edwige Marion is head of the brigade of the Gare du Nord in Paris. The plot begins with the unthinkable: while waiting for Marion outside the police station, her teenage daughter and her best friend are attacked by a man who appears from nowhere but obviously knows them. The tension of the scene is bloodcurdling. In “I Killed My Husband,” Anna is beaten by her husband and ends up killing him. However, during her trial, she discovers that he is actually still alive. “Elle’s Kitchen” stars Adriana, a young French-Senegalese chef who dreams of stardom in the very male-dominated world of haute cuisine. To open her restaurant, she partners with the wrong people and quickly finds herself embroiled in a dangerous game.

All three series have been acquired for a second French window by the TF1 group. “I Killed My Husband” and “Elle’s Kitchen” have been pre-purchased by RTL in Belgium. “For the rest, deals are being signed and there is a lot of interest and offers,” Boireaux says. What makes the series stand out? “13ème Rue’s confidence in its crews, and the quality of the well-known producers, who have the capacity to involve and enthuse the teams. The series are original, well-written and very smart in terms of optimizing limited budgets. The female characters are strong, with their flaws and faults of course, and we can easily identify with them. The quality of the rhythm, the casting and the artistic direction also make these series, produced for a pay channel, attract important free TV players.”

Crime series have always occupied a good place in the French market but in recent years, they have not hesitated to go off the beaten path, Boireaux points out. “France has developed an increasingly rich and diversified offer in fiction in recent years and we no longer hesitate to go towards the dark scenarios or more original concepts.”

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