Saturday, June 17, 2006

Engrenages (Spiral) and French policiers

French policiers are gritty. Gritty? Yes, if you look at most of the detectives very few seem to shave more than once a week. Or maybe in their case it's extreme 5 o'clock shadow. Even the women look gritty, those that are cops not the civilians.

I've just encountered my first French television detective series Engrenages (Spiral), which is showing on BBC4. It's been tucked away in a backwater to be aired around midnight and it is a great pity. Admittedly, everyone looks attractive including the criminals. Where are the obvious signifiers when you need them? For me it is closer to American detective series than English ones.

In English police/detective shows the police are shown working on their own eventually catching the criminal who just deserts are granted off-screen after the end of the programme, eg, Morse. (I suppose one could argue that Rumpole shows the lawyers in action.) In the American shows the prosecutor makes an appearance. Not always it is true, but more than in the British equivalents. In shows like Law and Order both police and prosecutors share equal billing except they tend to appear sequentially: police first with the investigation then prosecution with the lawyers.

In Engrenages both appear but in tandem. The police work very closely with the prosecutors who determine how long accused can be held for and so on. They and the prosecutors are also under the supervision of an investigating judge. For Anglo-Americans this series is educational.

The French police are shown as a combination of integrity, corruption and minor venality. In the first three episodes they encounter drug-swallowing African immigrants (who ingest their own faeces to escape capture), deaf-mute Russian hawkers being run by a gangmaster, Romanian prostitutes organised by East European pimps, and crooked financiers. I almost forgot the porcelain factory owner who, after being fisted by his lover, is killed by his exasperated wife. And the ex-alcoholic, ex-drug addict mother who hires a crazy nanny who kills her baby believing it to be evil incarnate. Phew! Keep up with that, then.

The lawyers lead lives only slightly less frenetic than the cops, but they appear professional because of their suits and ties, and careful diction. Both lawyers and cops are casual about sex. On learning that his separated wife is seeing someone else, the deputy state prosecutor, a few hours later, is saying to the pretty Chief Inspector, "Your place or mine?" No one ever accused lawyers of being original. And they chose his because his apartment is very chic.

The lawyers' roles in France are quite different to those elsewhere, especially the US. Forget zealous advocacy. Avocats (or solicitors as the English translation says) are deferential to the judge, never contradict him, and hardly say anything, even when their client is being harangued by the judge. They seem virtually complicit. It has been argued by some that continental lawyers (ie, civilians) are extensions of the state while common lawyers are creatures of the market and stand in opposition to the state. French lawyers appear to exemplify this.

One curious aspect is that of a disbarred criminal lawyer who hires a young, female lawyer to front him in cases. He wants to create a stir, but what he will gain from it is yet unknown.

I can't wait for Donna Leon's books to be converted into a television series. Venice and Italian corruption, way beyond the venal would be marvellous.

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