The French television series Call My Agent!, just returned for its fourth and final run on Netflix in most countries, is a finely judged comic drama on the relationship between actors and their agents that refreshingly declines to take sides in the perennial conflict between creators and the money-raisers who allow them to create.
Traditionally, French culture has positioned itself on the side of the artist. What romance is there in the book-keeping side of the business? But the actors who pepper the series — they include Charlotte Gainsbourg, Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci — seem to relish the chance to play their worst selves: insecure, pompous, willing to sink any project if their capricious demands are not met. Those who pick up the bills are, by contrast, relatively honest in their more limited motivations.
Stuck in the middle are the agents of ASK, a motley-staffed company that is forced to switch between the needs of client and patron without undue contortion. The satire is, by Anglo-American standards, light-touched. The cheesy, retro music and cartoon villainy take some getting used to. Plot-lines are absurd, mixing high farce with improbably extreme emotional outpourings.
But the whole is somehow winning, held together by a fine central performance from Camille Cottin as ASK’s boss Andréa, forever trying to balance a ruthlessness which she does not possess with the desire for a richer, more intimate life.
The new series arrives in the wake of the infantile Emily in Paris, and corrects some of that programme’s vapid clichés on life in the French capital. Call My Agent!’s characters are stressed out, unkempt and impervious to sentimental city strolls. The sexual liaisons in which they find, or lose, themselves are rushed, or misguided, or downright unsuitable.
Beneath the joshing and the cocktails, there is a slow-flowing undercurrent of necessary mendacity: small, casual lies that get out of hand, and grow into personal betrayals. The cynicism is slight but corrosive. “He who loves, lies,” says the limp-limbed, catty Hervé (Nicolas Maury) to a colleague, with fortune-cookie glibness. “You have to hate someone to tell them the whole truth.”
Women dominate this final season, not just among the principal characters, where they comfortably out-hustle the men, but also in more understated ways. They play most of the films’ directors, the casting executives, the meanest negotiators. They also make the strongest statements about one of the series’ recurring themes, the pathos of growing old.
In the season’s strongest episode, Hollywood’s Sigourney Weaver, outperforming her French counterparts in grande-dame demeanour, is upset to be cast opposite a man of her own age as her love interest. She demands a younger and more attractive consort. Impossible, the entire French film industry retorts, only to be outdone when some jinks at Père Lachaise Cemetery prompt a change of attitude.
It is an inspired mise-en-scène. Among these poignant monuments, where art weighs heavily and money seems to matter not at all, the ghosts of French culture seem to signal their approval of Call My Agent!’s gleeful twisting of gender stereotypes, and its ultimate commitment to the brittle life of the artist.
On Netflix in most countries and France 2 in France