By Paul Risker.
From the hustle and bustle of Paris, the stage for Spiral (Engrenages, (2005-)) and Braquo (2009-2014), the new French crime series Witnesses (Les Témoins, (2015)) retreats to the small coastal town of Lille to offer us a change of scenery for the latest serving of Gallic crime drama. And, if as much importance should be placed upon a first impression as is often inferred, then this new series offers an intriguing conceptual opening for an investigation that is best not disclosed, albeit to say it is a delightful spark of Gallic morbidity.
Following its opening what unfolds is a familiar story in which former chief-of-police Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte) is drawn out of retirement and self-exile thanks to a single clue left at the first two scenes of a morbid crime wave that implicates him. It is a tale of the detective figure haunted by his past and reluctantly Maisonneuve returns to active duty where he joins his former student Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier), one of the lead investigators who has little affection for her mentor. True to its narrative interests even this tension remains a mystery with only ambiguously tame accusations surfacing. Together Maisonneuve and Winckler find themselves working a case that is a ominously orchestrated game of cat and mouse; the intent to return Paul Maisonneuve to his former heights before the final act of one criminal’s vendetta can play out. But nothing is quite as it seems as the past crisscrosses into a tangled and interconnected web.
Across its six episode affair Witnesses is a dance between its characters and the past and present. In the first instance the series appears to be centralised on Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier), a notion reinforced by the title sequence that boldly seems to celebrate its own contribution to the flourishing canon of European female detectives. But the way in which the crimes draw former chief-of-police Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte) into the case positions him as the core figure of the series – inextricably linked to the past in a way that Winckler is not. While he’s pulled into the past, she through her previous and less than amiable connection to him is also being pulled, and yet because the past is largely not her own she is equally being pushed. This early inference of the title sequence and its repetition seems a unique choice, suggestive of a shift in association of the genre from the male to the female detective.
This aside the past in Witnesses is most aptly likened to the black and white chequered chess board, upon which the characters sit and are manoeuvred around. While the past is both the source of personal and professional angst (and in particular for Winckler, her trials are largely domestic), the mix of Maisonneuve’s personal and profession ghosts sidestep domesticating Winckler who is presented to be equal to her veteran counterpart and former teacher. From Winckler and Maisonneuve emerges the dynamic of the old versus the young; the one stuck in the past and the one who is learning how to relate to the past that is invariably influenced by her counterpart’s relationship with his own history. So Winckler represents an intriguing contrast to Maisonneuve through her personal story, and the film creates a recent past that allows her to ask the question for herself. This question is whether the past needs to necessarily be a negative or harmful intrusion upon the present and near future, and whether the sorrow of the past can be left behind with only the joys carried forward.
At the heart of this web is the series’ antagonist Kaz Gorbier (Laurent Lucas). From the pronunciation of his name to his physical presence when he assumes his predatory identity, Gorbier imbues the series with a shade of horror. From the attic as an ‘evil’ space to moments of home invasion that recall the flourishing sub-genre, the series can be seen to even recall Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas (1974). Therein Witnesses looks to the close links shared between the crime and horror genres, the latter remaining an effective flavouring to the crime story that deepens the blackness and creates a more potent emphasis on a pure blooded good versus evil tale. It is this that serves to distinguish Witnesses from other continental crime dramas that explore the greyer areas that separate the protagonist from their antagonists.
If Maisonneuve is inextricably linked to the past then one must conclude that he is the lynchpin to the drama, and yet our gaze is nonetheless drawn to the show’s heroine. Any discussion of Winckler leads us headlong into a contemplation of an heritage that has been slowly developed through The Killing’s (Forbrydelsen, (2007-12)) Sarah Lund, The Bridge’s (Bron/Broen, (2011-)) Saga Norén and Spiral’s Laure Berthaud. While connected to these characters, by acting as a prism Winckler offers an interesting point of view of the contemporary female detective. Coupled with the most recent series of Spiral which featured a pregnant Berthaud, Witnesses offers us a study of the contrasts between the maternal instincts of the pregnant female detective as Winckler’s natural maternal instincts contrast distinctly with Berthaud’s initial absence of or less instinctive maternal nature. And in contrast to these other female detectives who collectively demonstrate an inclination to sacrifice their romantic, family and interpersonal relationships to place their work at the centre of their world, Winckler shows a character who has a more balanced worldview – trying to be partner, mother and detective. While she tries to keep the whole together, her brethren compartmentalise and sacrifice. While their lives are fractured existences, Winckler makes a concerted effort to be all things to everyone – to prevent the cracks forming and shattering the whole of her sense of a complete existence. So by comparing and contrasting Winckler in this way suggests that there is a degree of flexibility within the female detective, who looks set to endure for some time to come. From this point of view much of how we perceive Witnesses is hinged upon how she contrasts to her contemporaries and this gives us the insight into how we can best perceive Winckler and the place of the series more broadly within the modern crime landscape.
Witnesses’ skill however is in the way in which it sustains itself. Creator Hervé Hadmar understandes the limitations of a single narrative thread and manages to sidestep what could have been a predictably lacklustre, tired and worn story. By seeking throughout to intertwine characters and story’s to create a web of intrigue he creates a source of sustenance for the series. Whether the end scenes are a little too heavy handed in an attempt to conclude the story, a journey of personal discovery is nonetheless undertaken, and by the conclusion the six episodes represent something more than just a story that sought to solve and resolve. Witnesses shows that even in a sleepy little town on the French coast it is anything but quiet, and the tide is not the only disturbance that threatens the peace. And within a genre that fell in love long ago with secluded settings, by escaping the hustle and bustle of Paris Witnesses offers a refreshing change of scenery to create an evocative intimacy for the collective tragic and dark past that intrudes upon the characters’ present.
Witnesses is released on October 5th on DVD & Blu-Ray courtesy of Arrow Films.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, and regularly blogs about the horror cinema. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.