2005 – Present
Whilst investigating a sprawling network of drug dealers, crooked politicians and shady money men, The Wire’s super-sleuth detective, Lester Freamon, determines that ‘all the pieces matter’. If season three of Engrenages is anything to go by, then the show’s creators Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and Alexandra Clert were certainly listening to Lester – and how.
Cinematic history tells us that if there’s a genre that French filmmakers do well, it’s crime, and its various delinquent offspring. From Jean Renoir’s early realist forays with frequent collaborator Jean Gabin, to Melville’s Hollywood inspired existentialist noirs, all the way up to the gangsters and cops of contemporary specialists Jacques Audiard and Olivier Marchal, France has a rap sheet to rival the USA. In more recent years, this expertise has sauntered its way onto television screens, most notably with Marchal’s own Braquo and since 2005, the outstanding Engrenages.
Engrenages literally translates as gears, yet the English title is given as Spiral – either works perfectly. The show is set amidst the cogs of the French judicial system, and just like the oily, abrading mechanisms of a huge, ever turning machine this arena is composed of numerous uncompromising, slippery characters. Aside from, and yet so often forced to be side-by-side with, the corrupt politicians and morally bankrupt businessmen that populate this Parisian cesspit, are those charged with law enforcement – the good guys. They come chiefly in the form of feisty Police captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), suave golden-boy Prosecutor Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi) and the ruthless Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos).
So far there have been three seasons, each bringing with it a new case and new set of contemptible criminal types. Season one centred on people trafficking and a brutal slaying, whilst simultaneously employing the hideously gripping tactic of beginning each new episode with the discovery an abhorrently murdered victim. Season two changed up and moved onto drug smuggling and the dilemmas of being undercover, whilst the most recent third season delved into the hunt for a serial killer, political corruption and prostitution. With its vast construct then, it is perhaps unsurprising that Spiral has drawn favourable comparisons with aforementioned and masterful The Wire. Whilst it may not quite equal the scope of HBO’s crime bible (nothing yet has), it is certainly beginning to run it close.
If the show is increasingly ‘Wire-esque’ in its construct, then season three also injects a fresh vial of The Shield into proceedings. As cops and judges descend deeper into law-bending, and indeed breaking, we are reminded of Vic Mackey’s Strike Team and the abundance of predicaments that Shawn Ryan’s infamous anti-heroes found themselves in. Comparisons can also be found closer to home, primarily in the films of the aforementioned Marchal such as 36 (2004) and MR73 (2008), both starring Daniel Auteuil. Aside from these associations however, it is worth noting that Spiral is very much its own show, a show that has both matured and excelled as it has gone on. Indeed, there were three years between season one and season two, and in this time it appears Spiral grew in ambition; successfully negotiating its transition from first time juvenile offender to fully fledged criminal kingpin.
Like the corruption and injustice that fills the screen, the dark World of Spiral is all consuming. We see barely a flicker of a home-life for any character, with the briefest flame of possible fulfilment outside of the job, swiftly snuffed out. The mise-en-scene is drenched in greys, blues and browns; the muted aesthetic providing a potent metaphor that in Spiral nothing, or nobody, is black and white; all is created from a spectrum of grey. This visual style can clearly been seen as a nod back to Melville, and the nihilism of Le Samourai (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un flic (1972) in particular. Yet, whilst nodding back, it is necessary to stress that Spiral is also a show that nods forwards. Thus far it has continued to grow, twirl and swirl, with each new season successfully bettering the previous one. And with the news that we are guaranteed at least one (tentatively three) more grinds of the gears, it is pretty safe to say that all the pieces will continue to matter.