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Marseille is prestige television for idiots.
Created by novelist Dan Franck, the Netflix Original is only original by virtue of branding: It’s virtually a carbon copy of the streaming platform’s own House of Cards, except with a French twist. Both are shows about cutthroat politicians who make seedy backroom deals and will do just about anything in order to gain and maintain power. Both also feature award-winning actors in roles that attempt to redefine their beloved image. Taking the place of Kevin Spacey is Gerard Depardieu, known to Americans for the romantic comedy Green Card. He plays the titular city’s morally conflicted mayor, Robert Taro. Taro loves his town so much that he’s willing to do anything to protect it, including betray those closest to him.
This includes his protege, Lucas Barres (Benoit Magimel), who turns on his mentor, well, because the script requires him to. After years of serving at Taro’s side, Barres gets his shot at the mayor’s office after his predecessor decides to step down. This has been the plan for some time; Barres has long been groomed for the position. The young politician, however, throws a wrench in things by voting against a casino that was designed to be built along the city port. The revitalization was Taro’s passion project, and the mayor views this as a clear betrayal—because it is. Barres repeatedly reminds him so. To strike back, Taro decides that he might not abdicate his position after all.
This is but one of Marseille’s many, many plots, not a single of which lands. Taro’s daughter, Julia (Stéphane Caillard), is a prospective journalist who wants to write about the problems facing the city’s low-income housing projects. In the grand tradition of female reporters in pop culture, Julia wears loose-fitting button-up shirts and spends more time hopping in and out of her subjects’ beds than she does on her laptop. She must have studied at the Kate Mara School of Journalism. Eric (Guillaume Arnault) is a childhood friend who lives in the slums of Marseille and is mixed up with the mafia. Julia has eyes for his sultry associate, Selim (Nassim Si Ahmed), but Eric won’t accept that. He repeatedly tries to coerce her into sex.
Vanessa’s only character trait is that she possesses a limitless amount of black corsets.
Marseille has a pervasively rapey vibe, as if the show were written by Robin Thicke. Julia’s best friend, Barbara (Carolina Jurczak), is a bisexual flirt who enjoys the promiscuous life, but the Julia just thinks she needs to “find the right man.” Barbara believes she has. Because Marseille apparently takes place in a post-apocalyptic environment where there are only eight people left on Earth, Barbara just so happens to be Barres’ assistant, and the two are having an illicit affair. When the two aren’t having almost-kisses, Barres instructs her not to wear sneakers in the office—but if she did, you know, she could get away with it because she has a pretty face. In another scene, a journalist expounds his belief that “equality is fine by me, unless is comes from the bedroom.”
Everyone in the show speaks this way, like a caricature of boardroom executive meetings from the ‘60s. Because all the characters spend a great deal of time weaving a very tangled web, Barres is also shtooping the wife of a former politician, Vanessa (Nadia Fares), who is frequently described as sleeping her way to the top. Vanessa’s only character trait is that she possesses a limitless amount of black corsets. After her husband retired, she chose to pursue her own political ambitions, and he is under no illusion that this wasn’t the goal all along. “Traitors are all the same,” he comments. “They suck you off and then they kill you.” Franck, a long-time television writer in France, regards these nasty exchanges as much cleverer than they actually are. It’s doubtful the show is an endorsement of sexism, but it isn’t much of a critique either.
The show inundates its viewers with countless subplots in order to distract from the fact that nothing actually happens. The camera is constantly moving in order to suggest action, but Marseille is about as suspenseful as waiting on your party’s name to be called at Bennigan’s. While the show badly wants what David Fincher is having, its structure is more similar to American reality television shows than a taut, tense political thriller. To wit, Marseille is surprisingly reminiscent of MTV’s The Hills. Something of vague interest will happen, and then the characters will spend the next three scenes talking about how utterly unbelievable it all was: “Quel shock!” It would be if you couldn’t see every twist coming an episode away.
The writing has an irritating O. Henry feel to it, where a character’s defining characteristic will inevitably be the thing that comes back to haunt them; cosmic irony appears to be on speed dial. For the non-spoiler averse among us, let’s employ a minor example: Taro has a pretty wife who is a gifted musician. She’s so good that she can play a Sam Smith song on the cello from memory, without even having rehearsed the tune. After doing some research to dig up dirt on Taro, Barres finds out someone in the family has serious health issues. Could it be that his wife is battling a debilitating illness that will slowly paralyze her and keep her from ever playing another note? And could it also be that Taro has yet to inform her of her condition? In Marseille, these are the clichés of our lives.
The show’s soap opera aspects aren’t helped by the fact that its actors are bathed in an overhead lighting that gives them a waxy veneer. Magimel is best known as the teenage pupil opposite in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, who becomes the object of an older woman’s (Isabelle Huppert) erotic obsession. He’s a decent actor and a household name in his native country, but you wouldn’t be able to tell in Marseille. He has a pinched expression that lends his performance a Madame Tussauds quality, as if he were constantly attempting to read very fine print. The dependable Depardieu is a bit better as his adversary, but there’s little convincing tension between the two men. It feels like they are a firm handshake away from resolving whatever got them into this mess to begin with. It’s doubtful they remember.
The show inundates its viewers with countless subplots in order to distract from the fact that nothing actually happens.
The trouble with Marseille is that its producers believe that bad people are inherently interesting. That’s not the case. Otherwise, we’d all be watching C-SPAN. To become invested in their dark deeds, the villainy of these men has to be compelling or even pleasurable. In the 1990 BBC miniseries on which House of Cards is based, Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is a thoroughly horrendous man, willing to lie, cheat, and even murder in his pursuit of power. He’s also delicious. Clearly having the time of his life, Richardson plays Urquhart with a devilish smirk, like a cat that just swallowed a mouse. No one in the deadly serious Marseille, however, would dare crack a smile. They appear to be under contract to frown as much as possible. For audiences, that spirit will likely prove infectious.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.