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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A French Village: A Searing Wake-Up Call

I just finished watching A French VillageUn village français - five seasons on Hulu, two seasons (the final two,  two of pieces of an Epilogue so titled) on Amazon Prime.  For a variety of reasons, mostly because I didn't want to rush this experience, irresistible as it was, I semi-binge-watched it, taking in this extraordinary work in I'd guess about a month.

Let me say up front that this series is among the very best ever on television, in any form, streaming or cable or traditional network.  I'd put it right up there with my two other all-time very favorite series, The Sopranos and The Wire.  Like both of those series, A French Village has no villain who is totally bad.  Even the worst have a glint or more of decency or humanity.  And also like those two HBO series, A French Village has no hero or heroine with some serious flaws.  That's why all three of series are so truly human in their stories and perspectives.

A French Village is the story of a fictitious village in France, Villeneuve - near a real village, Besançon - and its Nazi occupation in the Second World War, and, in the Epilogue, the aftermath of that.  No one escapes unscathed.  Every character, if not literally or figuratively destroyed by the experience, is left deeply impaired or indelibly stained.  This is inevitable for all of the collaborators, even the ones who managed to resist a little or more, but also for the resistance fighters, who sacrifice a part of their humanity in their resistance.  The lesson is unspeakably sad, yet at the same time wise, beautiful, and even satisfying.

My favorite characters are two of the outright villains - well, one is outright and the other maybe 60/40 villainous.   Maybe that's just me - but I recall Hitchcock telling Truffaut that his favorites were villains, too.  (I'll try to not deliver any big spoilers in what follows.)

Heinrich Müller is an SS intelligence chief.  He's cold as ice, brilliant, and enjoys meting out pain.  But when he falls into some kind of combination of love and carnal lust with a French woman - it's mostly lust, but there's some feeling there - he's capable of almost being kind and decent, and against all odds I even found myself rooting for him in a scene or two.  Jean Marchetti is French police investigator.  He's no lover of Nazis, but he believes in strong government and has some fascist tendencies.  But he manages to do some very good things, all along, along with the bad - which unfortunately comes to include killing a resistance fighter in a fury, when he's harangued about something he feels deeply guilty about.

Richard Sammel was perfect as Müller and Nicolas Gob as Marchetti, but really everyone was outstanding and memorable in their roles, including Audrey Fleurot and Thierry Godard (who have also been excellent in Spiral - Godard, though he's not related to Jean-Luc Godard, has something of Jean-Paul Belmondo in his look and manner).  A French Village began to air in 2009 and concluded in 2017 in France - or, in American terms, from Obama through Trump.  Sort of disconcerting but instructive to consider that the trajectory in A French Village - Nazi to liberation - is just the opposite of 2009 to 2017 here in America.

Not that Trump is (yet) a Nazi - he's closer to Marchetti than Müller - and I do believe there's more hope for us now in the United States than in Villeneuve in World War II and after, a French village that often feels like a village of the damned, where no one gets out with their soul completely intact.  But in addition to all its other powerful virtues, A French Village is a searing wake-up call for us in 2018 America.

See this marvel of television when you have a month or more.  The French have given us Monet, Debussy, Truffaut, and all the people who made and starred in A French Village.

speaking of Monet ...
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