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Netflix’s never-ending thirst for content makes for a host of strange cultural bedfellows. The service’s global reach has led to popular American series set in France, and French series that have piqued the interest of American viewers. One of them is Call My Agent!, which ran for four seasons (2015-2020).
While Emily in Paris is a projection of American TV tropes onto Parisian settings, Call My Agent! (Dix Pour Cent in French) is something else entirely. The series is about the complications befalling actors’ reps in a Parisian talent agency. Episodes typically feature real-life cinema and television personalities, in Season 4, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Xavier Beauvais, Julie Gayet, Nathalie Baye, Jean Reno, even basketball star Tony Parker.
It’s an example of the French genre called comédie-dramatique, which as the name indicates, is a work with a dramatic form but large doses of humor, as well. That’s not so different from certain American sitcoms that overlap with soap opera, or serious shows with an ironic undertone. But that’s not where the convergence ends.
Call My Agent! is a completely French show, with French characters, French settings. But it too is a kind of chimera. In fact, the world of agents is very American. The show is a French fantasy of Hollywood reality parachuted into Paris, something akin to Disneyland Paris. Agents don’t really have the prominence in France that they do in the U.S. arts industry. In publishing they’re a distinctly minority presence. Agents do exist in the world of movie and TV entertainment, but without the enormous agencies and package-making clout as in Hollywood.
Call My Agent! isn’t a French equivalent of, say, Robert Altman’s The Player. We’re in the more amusing, more human world of an old-fashioned boutique agency, with individual agents representing individual clients. In episode one, the César Awards are depicted in sheer show biz terms, as the Oscars used to be years ago. (Even in France, the Césars have recently joined the real world of protests about sexual abuse and other controversies.)
Just as Emily was saved by Lily Collins, the sprightly actress with a gift for goofy comedy who plays the eponymous heroine, so Call My Agent! is mostly redeemed by Camille Cottin, playing Andréa Martel, a chief partner at her agency. While Collins possesses an elfin prettiness Cottin is more substantial, physically and otherwise. She’s not conventionally beautiful, but can be attractive when attractiveness is called for. She’s a masterly actress who can do both comedy and drama. With a turn of her expression and tone she not only modulates her own presence, but what’s happening around her — she can turn the whole show from comic to dramatic and back again on a dime. It’s fascinating watching her, even when the script wallows in the banal and you mutter, “But what the hell is she nattering about?”
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Many of the other characters, and the actors playing them, are rather lightweight. There are obligatory clichés: an effeminate gay character, a beautiful black woman receptionist struggling to be an actress, an older woman dispensing crusty wisdom. Here, and in the vapid subplots and perfunctory dialogue, the show resembles Emily, with the same thin, light texture. At least the photography in Call My Agent! is more plain and functional, rather than flashy.
Also, we have to give the writers credit for deliciously comic plots. In Episode One of Season Four, called “Charlotte,” Andréa was supposed to read a script for her client, Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing herself). The agent didn’t get around to reading it, as it came in the middle of the night, she gets cornered into saying that she did — and that the script is great, so that Charlotte accepts the role. And of course, the script is actually crap. Further complicating things, the director is a friend of Charlotte’s, making his very first film, and is supposed to be “fragile”. In fact, he’s hilariously neurotic.
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Call My Agent! is at its best when it veers towards this kind of screwball comedy. Cottin then becomes an excellent deadpan comedienne. Gainsbourg goes from being a celebrity guest star complacently playing herself to a real comic actress, and Micha Lescot as the director is laugh-out-loud funny.
Some of the “dramatique” aspects of the series aren’t fully developed. Andréa has a partner, Colette (Ophélia Kolb), a tax inspector who’d audited the agency, and a baby. The typical issues between more and less high-powered partners, including the sharing out of childcare, are touched on, as if to highlight that same-sex couples are indeed real couples. If this side of Andréa’s life were dramatized it would make her a much more fleshed-out character, but would perhaps throw the series’ premise out of whack.
The Frenchness of Call My Agent! lies not so much in its comédie-dramatique features, but in the ensemble playing and economical direction. The directors of Season Four included veterans such as Marc Fitoussi (who directed “Charlotte” and two other episodes), and Cédric Klapisch, one of France’s best comic directors. “Charlotte” culminates in a moment of very French carnality, comic-romantic full-frontal nudity on the banks of the Seine. Somehow I can’t picture that in Emily in Paris.
Production: Mon Voisin Productions/France Télévisions