Call My Agent!, the comedy-drama about a French talent agency, reached its denouement last week when its fourth and final series dropped. In the closing episode, the sassy back-stabbing agents who are trying to uphold the facade of French cinema are faced with a crisis. In order to get a film made, they would have to cut a deal with Netflix. Oh, the indignity.
If you’ve been watching, by now you should be used to the fourth wall splitting open as film stars turn up in the series as themselves: Juliette Binoche backstage at Cannes desperate for a pee and Sigourney Weaver throwing a diva strop about not having a hot young actor as her love interest in her next film. But now the floor has also fallen through: it is Netflix that is bringing you the show.
Norma Desmond was right: it was the pictures that got small. Now they are about 13 inches across on a laptop. Stars have been queueing up to shrink into people’s screens.
Cinema had to be grand to be believed. Hollywood is a fantasy land and France has treated its cinema with the reverence reserved for religion. Celebrity interviews are tightly controlled and reputations guarded with burly bouncers.
Andréa Martel, the ball-busting agent played by Camille Cottin, declares that agents are just the innocent putti — “we let little arrows fly”. She couldn’t be more disingenuous. This show is about the sheer effort of the artifice required to create a film. It is not just the artistic vision but the manipulation of actor, audience, director, reviews and interviews, just to keep us all believing in the myth of the screen.
Call My Agent! is a homage to French cinema that also points to an inflection point in that tradition. Let’s not overstate it, as Jean-Luc Godard did in the 1967 film Weekend, which closed not with the usual still “Fin” but with “Fin de Cinéma”. Here we have not an end but a muddying. The cameos where the stars in Call My Agent! step off their pedestals and laugh at themselves and their own industry are still unusual. Cottin said in a recent interview that “self-mockery or self-parody is not something that sits naturally with us”.
Recall François Hollande. He insisted on his right to privacy when a French magazine revealed his affair with Julie Gayet but was perhaps most piqued by being papped riding pillion on a moped with helmet askew as he went to visit her.
Gayet would appear in the first season of Call My Agent!, filmed not long after the affair became public, as a marquise having a passionate affair. She was happy with in-jokes about her real life slipping into the script.
Binoche, stuffed into a feathered dress, mocks the red dress culture. Charlotte Gainsbourg would nearly ruin her reputation by helping a friend out on a dreadful film. Every episode reveals an actor’s fallibility — usually vanity — and their humanity.
Some of the most moving were the episodes with actors past their prime. Like those signing up to I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!, they are having a late sip of fame. Before the show took off, I imagine real-life agents agreeing to let their clients on because they didn’t have another big role lined up.
To appear is the acceptance that the age of Netflix churning out the mini-series, of TikTok riffing off film clips, of celebrity interviews and mock-reality shows, is where it’s at. There is no longer a fiercely guarded line between cinema and other media. They are an extension of each other. Anything goes. Stardom does not exist in an ethereal place.
What’s the harm of viewing a TV series on a laptop, or indeed a film? But what of the usher who led you to a seat? Do you now watch Netflix slouched in bed? The darkness of the auditorium absorbed all distractions. As you hit play, the hum of the household seeps in. Do you feel the slap of cold air when you emerge on to the street and wonder whether you or your cinema companion will break the silence first? Or do you just quickly check in on TikTok as the credits roll before the next binge?
There has been one star who has declined to appear on Call My Agent!, despite her name being dropped in hope several times in the show: that is, of course, Catherine Deneuve. She did not want to play herself. They say she’s haughty. But she’s also of the school of thought that one’s dignity matters more than the allure of momentary fame. (That they didn’t have an episode of agents desperately trying and failing to get Deneuve on was a trick missed.)
Culture on tap is democratising, actors showing they can be self-deprecating is wonderful, but can one be blamed for aching for an evening at the cinema? It was not just the stars who were gods. So too was the audience, placed on velvet thrones to watch. It is an honour not to be given up lightly.
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