Call My Agent! A self portrait of modern France?

Netflix’s hit series certainly isn’t short of tired French clichés which inevitably helped sell this series to international audiences. This is the France of beautiful Parisian boulevards, strong black coffee, croissants for breakfast, cigarettes in the office, glamourous women, hopeless romantics, hot tempers, and men with mistresses. But there is something a little more interesting going on in this series, too. It might tell us something about what France wants to be versus how it is. As with any hit movie, book or TV show, it’s a prism through which we can learn about our friends over the channel, and see ourselves in a different light, too. And wh

Le cinéma

The setting of this series in an actors’ agency, at the beating heart of the French cinema industry, is not insignificant. In this show, French cinema thrives. It is a national cinema with its own stars, who in turn have their own capriciousness. It’s a country so wedded to its own cinematic representation that these very same stars appear in the show – as themselves. In the show, it’s an industry with more than enough intrigue and politics to rival any other in the world, and plenty of cash to splash on parties, festivals and glamour. Significantly, its stars covet recognition in the form of a César, not an Oscar, and the hottest tickets of the year are for Cannes, not for California. The old flame of French cinema continues to burn bright – under the affectionate tutelage of old-timers like agent Arlette Azémar (not to mention her pooch Jean Gabin), who sagely and without a hint of anxiety or déclinisme guides her colleagues to nurture the talent of tomorrow.

L’exception française

The idea of France wanting to do things differently – by itself, with a hint of largesse and broadly against the odds – is a familiar one. The series confronts this head-on. Hicham arrives back in Paris having made his millions in London – shorthand for the anglo-saxon world of ruthless wealth creation and business acumen. He wants to lecture his colleagues on how deals are done and profits secured in the land of private schools and plaggy commercial soundbites. He comes back to France with a distasteful lust of excess which fails to impress his own son, let alone his fellow Frenchwomen and Frenchmen. The Americans – referred to literally as such – are shown in a similarly unsympathetic light. They’re represented by two, highly capable upstarts from a global production company, with a reputation for their uncompromising and merciless approach to contracts, incapable to developing relationships beyond the commercial or legal spheres. They might be smart, but they’re outwitted by their French agents: Andréa and Gabriel curate the cunning and creativity of colleagues from across the hierarchy to outmanoeuvre the faces of corporate America. Their solution is downright ridiculous, but funny, French, heartfelt, hot-blooded and, of course, engineered by a namesake of the epitome of French cinema herself, Isabelle Hupert. London might be more successful, and the Americans more powerful, but France keeps the upper hand. It’s no surprise that hotshot agent Andréa Martel quickly loses interest in a promotion to New York, and prefers to stay in her beloved, somewhat dysfunctional Paris,

Les règles sont faites pour être transgressées

Part of the secret of Parisian flair, it seems, is to have an insistence for rules, and a readiness to break them. Rules, often arcane and archaic ones, seem to cast their shadow throughout the storylines. A man can readily claim parenting rights, but a second mother cannot; the Inland Revenue is a stickler for business expenses and company accounts; contracts restrict the free movement and blossoming of artistic talent; scripts get in the way of good films; marriage stands in the way of love; conventions conceal truths. But all virtually no rule or convention in the film stands the test of time, nor the test of Frenchness. If the characters in this series love one thing, it’s to recognise the rule, and break it anyway. In Britain we like to sneer at our continental friends for this: time after time the British press prints an angry story about how well-behaved Britain is, and how the French and Germans refuse to obey the rules that they themselves set within the EU. Of course, we in Britain write and read these stories as if we have discovered something about the French that they don’t know about themselves. This series reminds how naive we are, not to mention how much we love a rule in the first place.

De vieux préjugés, de vieux problèmes

But it’s not all rosy in the glam world of French cinema. We see a France struggling to deal with some long-term social hangovers. It’s a country which can’t help but sexualise young black women. Paris is a snobbish capital which sneers at its provinces. The regions are pure but simple places, the home of bad actresses and regretted romances. Sexual minorities are more visible but remain othered. And some men continue to wield destructive power on the standing and wellbeing of women. And the bougie world of French cinema in the first arrondissement seems irreconcilable with a more realistic, cross-sectional representation of urban France.

I’ve only just reached the end of series 3, so please forgive any omissions or hasty conclusions. Call My Agent! is perhaps no masterpiece, but it’s fun, watchable, and reminds me why I love being a linguist. I feel so lucky to be able to watch this through the medium of French, and to explore these thoughts in the context of what I’ve learned hitherto about the French-speaking world.

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