“Spiral” – The Vortex [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Spiral” (“Engrenages”), the top notch police drama from France, premiers its seventh season on November 17 on MHz Choice. Originally created by Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin in 2005, Clert stayed on to guide and supervise the writing through all seven seasons. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times declared it “one of the best crime dramas around.”
“Spiral” is an intense look at the French justice system from all the intermeshed points of view. Intermeshed is the optimum expression as the title in French, “Engrenages,” can be interpreted as gears interlocking. A taut procedural and legal drama, each season follows a particular crime and its complex tendrils as the police work to solve the case with the cooperation, sometimes at cross-purposes, of the judge advocate assigned to the case. The defense is the monkey wrench thrown into the gears of justice.
Since the first episode in 2005 until now, the core of that team remains. Laure Berthaud, former lead investigator of the team has just returned from several months at a psychiatric facility. Berthaud’s mental breakdown was related to the child she had with a former lover, Commissaire Brémont, and was unwilling or unable to care for. She finds a cool response from her boss, the officious Commissaire Beckriche. He is reluctant to add her back into a team now being led by her former subordinate and lover, Commandant Gilou. New team members have been added during her absence and Beckriche, never a fan, feels she will upset the chemistry. But she demands to be part of this case as an investigator and will obey the hierarchy because their former commander, Commissaire Herville, has been executed in a Chinese restaurant along with his confidential informant. Gilou is convinced the murders involved a robbery and Herville was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Berthaud is unconvinced. Something more sinister was involved and she presses relentlessly to uncover the actual circumstances.
Judge Roban, the judge advocate, has been given notice that he will have to retire the moment he turns 65. Never one to play politics, he has burned too many bridges to get a reprieve. He needs a big case to go out in glory and the murder of Herville and the opportunity to work again with Berthaud and Gilou makes this a necessity. Beckriche, who replaced Herville but never knew him, wants things wrapped up quickly. He’s eager to hand it off to another unit.
In the mix from the first episode of the series is Josephine Karlsson, the beautiful and ethically challenged lawyer who will leave no stone unturned or lie unused to free her invariably guilty clients. But this time she is the client of her unscrupulous mentor, Eric Edelman. For the past three months she has been suffering in prison while she awaits a hearing on charges of the attempted murder of her former boss. Prison is tense, the other women hostile, and the guards corrupt. Her only hope is to stay out of trouble, but it finds her no matter what.
Berthaud is right. This was more than a robbery. All roads lead to a massive money laundering operation that becomes stymied by corrupt politics, another police agency, poor judgment on the part of the seemingly incorruptible, and, of course, the brilliant, shady, devious, immoral, and unethical methods of Karlsson who does get out of prison. That can’t be too much of a spoiler alert as she’s one of the stars of the series.
If you have never seen the series, this is a recap on who the main players have been. Certainly it would be better to come at this season having watched the others, but rest assured, you will catch up quickly and season seven can be seen as a stand-alone.
What drives “Spiral,” besides its brilliant writing, plotting, and character development, is the cast. Led off by Caroline Proust as Berthaud, she is intense, conflicted, often as lawless as the criminals she’s pursuing, and always believable. Proust communicates her thought process, fragility, strength, and single mindedness in a way that draws the viewer into her psyche, magnetically holding you. She is the reality of this show and her actions, sometimes despicable, are understandable.
Thierry Godard is Gilou, incapable of walking a straight line and willing to follow Berthaud’s lead even when it’s clearly wrong. He exudes unmistakable animal magnetism that makes him that classic French “joli-laid,” the handsome ugly man (a term that they applied to Charles Bronson).
Philippe Duclos, Judge Roban, conveys the righteous man with a stick up his derriere. Rigid when it comes to morality and ethics, he is blinded by his own ambition, although he would disagree with that sordid description. He wants the truth, but he wants to win. Even when he is tripped up, it is the warmth he conveys that makes you ache for him.
Although for me Caroline Proust is the show, Audrey Fleurot as defense attorney Josephine Karlsson is pretty much in a dead heat for control of the narrative. Fleurot, a red headed, drop dead beauty, is the monkey wrench in these gears. Her penetrating blue eyes reveal the wheels turning, her lips purse with determination, she is everything you should hate, and often do. But like Berthaud who will cross legal lines to get the result she needs, this is what Karlsson does as well even if your sympathies do not lie with her. You can’t, and shouldn’t, take your eyes off Fleurot.
The other actors are excellent as well. To name just a few, there is new team member Ali played by Tewfik Jallab; Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Karlsson’s morally compromised mentor and lawyer; and Cyril Lecomte as David Cann, a true example of the banality of evil as you will find. Most notable, however, is the return of Fred Bianconi as Tintin. Tintin had been a trusted associate of Berthaud and Gilou, a third musketeer. Until he wasn’t. Unable to approve of the borderline (usually over that border) tactics of the other two, he left the division and joined internal affairs, conflicted as always and thoroughly sympathetic.
If you haven’t seen the series before, it might take an episode or two to get immersed, but do it. It will be worth it and should propel you back to Season One. Like “The Wire,” this is a thought-provoking, gritty, and realistic drama that turns over every rock, regardless of what is found.
In French with subtitles.
Premiering on MHz Choice on Tuesday November 17.