Though there is no shortage of flawed political figures on television (or in reality), we could certainly do without those depicted in “Marseille.” Calling them politicians, or even characters, would be a generous description of the hollow agents of mediocrity they are.
This reality is especially surprising, considering that the show’s platform, Netflix, is credited with the creation of the widely acclaimed political thriller “House of Cards” and the series is produced in France (and France … is, well, France). Though the combination of an internationally popular streaming service and a likewise international origin of production –– both celebrated for their innovation and knack for high quality –– should make for compelling, quality content, the series falls short. And with a star like Gérard Depardieu (“Life of Pi”) at the helm, you may be asking yourself what could have gone wrong?
The answer: a lot.
To start, the series takes the likes of Depardieu, an actor renowned for his dramatic aptitude, and reduces him to a caricature fit for a soap opera. Depardieu plays Robert Taro, the wearied mayor of 20 years of the French city of Marseille. In the series premiere, he is introduced hunched over a conference room table snorting coke, before emerging to watch the soccer match taking place at the Stade Velodrome and exclaiming, “I fucking love this city” as the crowd cheers below him.
Though this powerful statement and its visual complement sets up the expectation that he’s a political force whose position of power enables him to do as he pleases, he’s the opposite. While he’s an influential figure whose passion for serving his city eventually rules over whatever other impressions we may have of him, his authority poorly conceals his stagnant rule as a mayor nearing the end of his term — not to mention his flimsy characterization meets the lack of substance exhibited by most of the other characters.
Throughout the series premiere, Taro seems to do nothing but arbitrarily snort coke and sit idly by while his protégé and successor, deputy mayor Lucas Barres (Benoît Magimel, “Little White Lies”) quietly screws him over (in addition to screwing their colleague’s wife). Taro leaps to action only once it’s too late — Barres sways a vote to regenerate the city’s Marina and build a casino against Taro’s favor, effectively thwarting the mayor’s last project before stepping down. The mayor indignantly shocked by his successor’s betrayal resolves to stay in office despite the political odds now against him.
Thus, Taro’s 20 years in office simultaneously become Barres’s 20 years of seething resentment and scheming –– an abrupt plot twist poorly set up by Barres’s swift change from the quiet political ally to the menacing snake in the grass for seemingly no reason other than pride and ambition. Not only does this quickly shift our indifference towards him to dislike, but it also positions him as Taro’s fundamental opposite. Taro, a family man who is devoted to his wife and blissfully unaware of his own daughter Julia’s (Stéphane Caillard, “Star Dust”) infatuation with Barrès is made all the more vulnerable compared to the cold and calculated Barrès, whose personal life we only glimpse through jarring slow motion scenes of him crudely having sex with women he’s manipulated.
Like any government, France’s political system has its issues, but the creator of the series seems to have no clue how to effectively craft a complex set of scheming political figures relative to that. The set of characters either come across as unbelievably naïve to the system they inhabit or overly sly with transparent agendas. The lack of nuance makes the characters flat and the story drag along.
Marseille, a compelling locale in which to set a political thriller, has an especially salient issue of poverty and organized crime — a thread thinly woven through the show’s narrative. The characters within the city’s projects are only loosely connected to the protagonists of the show and even more loosely tied to their environments. The two pretty boys, Eric (Guillaume Arnault) and Cosini (Jean-René Privat), appear to have been dropped into the projects out of the blue and serve the series for pure shock value. The two randomly rob a jewelry store for seemingly no reason and miraculously aren’t caught. The heist is then forgotten until Eric’s car is set on fire by a powerful local criminal for some poorly thought up reason.
The erratic camerawork and lurid editing don’t serve the series either. While some dreamlike cinematography engages us with Taro’s thoughts and hint at the mysterious criminal forces threatening the local government’s authority — the poorly shot close ups and conversation scenes and overly dramatic slow motion sequences make the drama feel staged.
While the show manages to make very real issues feel inauthentic, it hosts an enormous amount of potential to compellingly deliver political drama with international intrigue. It has the actors, premise, and resources to do so. And with Netflix’s investment in serving as a global platform for quality content, the series has some work to do to step up its game.