Here’s a series that Euro TV fans on both sides of the pond can stream this weekend. It’s Black Spot and it’s one to binge.
You know how some shows start off great and then go downhill after only a few episodes?
Well, Black Spot (Zone Blanche) isn’t one of them. This eight-episode mystery-crime drama series is gripping from start to finish. (I binged the entire season over two nights.)
It opens, fittingly enough, with Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely” playing while a man whose car has broken down tries to call for help but can’t. There’s no cell phone signal, and the roadside phone box is kaput. Moments later he falls to the ground, with legs twisted, and painstakingly crawls his way back to his car.
Welcome to Villefranche! A (fictional) small, isolated town in the midst of a dense and mysterious 50,000-acre forest in the mountains. No wonder the guy couldn’t use his cell phone or GPS/sat nav. According to the sheriff, “even microwaves can get a bit fickle” here.
That sheriff is hometown gal Major Laurène Weiss (Suliane Brahim, Meurtre en trios actes), a no-BS cop with a big mouth and impetuous nature, a teen-aged daughter, and three gendarmes to maintain order in the town. (What she doesn’t have are two of her fingers.)
Given that the Villefranche population is on the small side (low hundreds, if that?) and getting smaller practically every day, you wouldn’t think there would be much for the police to do aside from breaking up the occasional bar fight or responding to calls about domestic disturbances. Well, this should have been the case for the town of Twin Peaks, too, but look at what happened there.
Here the question isn’t “who killed Laura Palmer” but “what happened to Marion Steiner.” Marion — the daughter of Villefranche’s mayor, Bertrand Steiner (Samuel Jouy, The Churchmen), and the best friend of Laurène’s daughter, Cora (Camille Aguilar, Blood of the Vine) — disappeared without a trace six months ago and hasn’t been heard from since.
It’s a mystery, but at the moment the Major and her team have a more pressing matter to attend to: a young woman has been found dead, hanged from a tree in the forest. (And this isn’t just any tree, either. It “bleeds” and has the symbol of infinity in its trunk.)
Back at the gendarmerie, car-trouble guy is sleeping on the sofa in the Major’s office. It turns out he’s Prosecutor Franck Siriani (Laurent Capelluto, The Returned). He’s come to Villefranche with case files for 37 murders committed in the this town (make that 38 now), and he wants to find out why the murder rate here has skyrocketed to six times the national average when the town’s population has continued to dwindle.
Like I said, “Welcome to Villefranche!”
Although each episode includes a self-contained mystery — including a rite of passage gone awry, the kidnapping of a newborn baby, and a gang of gun-toting robbers who aren’t after money — the arcs about the missing Marion, Laurène’s mysterious past, a group of underground activists, and Siriani’s presence in Villefranche, make the series feel like one seamless story.
One thing I became keenly aware of around the midpoint of the series is how the characters in Black Spot very rarely smile. Villefranche is a town that’s basically dying, and the dreariness of the constant grey clouds, plus one crime after another, aren’t much to smile about, but still.
That’s not to say, though, that you won’t smile or even chuckle during Black Spot. The series is not without its moments of levity. A brief scene set in the bar toward the end of the third episode is so brilliantly done, I laughed out loud big time and felt lighter in the moment, before the noir-ness of the story took hold again. There are other humorous scenes, as well, and all of them involve the character of the Major’s right-hand man, Nounours (“Teddy Bear”) Ferrandis, played by Hubert Delattre (The Frozen Dead), who won the Most Promising Male Actor award at the 2017 Festival des Créations Télévisuelles de Luchon.
While we’re on the topic of characters, the forest in Black Spot in one unto itself. If this reminds you of the Swedish series Jordskott, you wouldn’t be alone. Ditto if the cave in one storyline prompts you to think of the German series Dark. There’s a wolf, too, but it actually plays a role in an episode rather than representing a theme, as in Witnesses. For symbolism and as a plot device in Black Spot, there are crows. Ultimately, this series is more dissimilar than not in content to the other shows, but like them it is very much a worthwhile watch.
Black Spot won two other awards at the Festival des Créations Télévisuelles de Luchon in 2017: Best Director for Thierry Poiraud (The Return of James Battle) and Julien Despaux (No Limit) and Best Photography for Christophe Nuyens (The Tunnel). It also won the FIPA D’Or (Gold) Award for Best Original Music – Series at the 30th International Festival of Audiovisual Programs in 2017.
The series is a French/Belgian co-production of Ego Productions, Be-Films, and RTBF, and features Renaud Rutten (Braquo), Tiphaine Daviot (Machine & Machinette), Naidra Ayadi (Three Times Manon), Brigitte Sy (L’astragale), Cyrielle Debreuil (Spiral), and Anne Suarez (Caïn). Season 2 goes into production in March 2018.
Update: As of May 2019, Black Spot is streaming in the US and the UK exclusively on Netflix.
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