In the real world, you might leave the big city and move to a small, picturesque town in the countryside to find peace and quiet. Maybe one with a nearby forest would be nice—the majestic trees, the woodland critters, the wind rustling through the leaves … how restful.
In the film/TV world, going to that small town surrounded by forest is like settling next door to a meth lab or a satanic death cult; you just know that all hell is going to break loose (maybe literally). Remember Twin Peaks? Silent Hill? Covington (from the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village)? And it’s not just an American thing. Case in point: Zone Blanche, renamed Black Spot for Amazon Prime.
Villefranche is a picturesque small town surrounded by the forest primeval in a mountainous area in France. The trees dislike electronics, so don’t expect your cell phone or GPS to work properly there. The Steiner family owns half the town; patriarch Gérald Steiner (Olivier Bonjour, In Bruges) is just one step away from being a gangster, while his somewhat-more-respectable son Bertrand (Samuel Jouy, various French films and TV series) is the mayor. Major Laurène Weiss (Suliane Brahim, French TV work you probably haven’t seen) and her small band of gendarmes represent the forces of law and order. They’re needed—Villefranche has a murder rate six times that of France as a whole.
Each of the series’ eight episodes features a different murder, most of which start or end up in the forest. The cases are suitably twisty and strange and not too easy to figure out ahead of time. Throughout the series runs another lingering tragedy: the mayor’s daughter Marion disappeared two years ago on her “overnighter,” a rite of passage for local 18-year-olds in which they spend the night in the spooky forest and (usually) come out alive the next morning.
Laurène hasn’t been able to solve Marion’s case yet, which causes understandable tension between her and Bertrand even as they carry on a sporadic affair. On her own overnighter, Laurène was kidnapped and ended up losing two fingers in a manner that everyone concerned decided to hush up. In between chasing down each episode’s murder, she goes for inadvisably long hikes in the woods looking for Marion and, perhaps, her own salvation.
Like Top of the Lake (another series centered on a small town surrounded by a hostile forest), nobody’s happy here, and those who do manage to briefly attain happiness are punished for it later on. Laurène, the central character, frequently seems overmatched by her job, her life, and her rebellious teenaged daughter, Cora (Camille Aguilar), who soon launches her own investigation into her friend Marion’s disappearance. Bertrand has a temper and an unhappy wife; the new prosecutor, Franck Siriani (Laurent Capelluto: The Returned), has not only a semi-hidden agenda but also an allergy to almost anything that lives in the woods; and Laurène’s three other gendarmes deal with a grab bag of issues. The performances are solid, and the lack of familiar (to us) faces makes it easier to go along with the characters on their own terms.
The setting is appropriately gloomy. Even the weather’s morose, gray, damp, and frequently foggy. Villefranche looks like a lumber town in the U.S. Pacific Northwest after the mill’s shut down. The kind of near-poverty and decay that Top of the Lake trafficked in is equally apparent here. The forest is practically a co-star, what with the mists hanging just so off the pine boughs, the bogs that yield more than bullfrogs, and winds that seem to have voices. The score is full of mournful, plinking banjos that evoke Deliverance, even though it’s a nonsequitur given the location.
About those voices: the forest isn’t just a bunch of trees. There may or may not be someone/something living out there. Our Heroes find ghoulish shrines and catch glimpses of shapes in the fog. Nobody ever caught Laurène’s abductor, who may have had a hand in taking Marion too. The proceedings never get as freaky as they do in The Kettering Incident, yet another town-in-a-feral-forest tale and Black Spot’s closest relative in tone. However, there were several times when I was seriously expecting smoke monsters or misplaced polar bears to appear. The ending is so out of left field that the only appropriate reaction is WTF?
A co-production between France Télévisions and RTBF Télévision Belge, Black Spot premiered in March-April 2017 in seven northwest European countries, becoming the #1 Monday primetime series on France2 that year. It’s the first French TV series to stream on Amazon Prime. A second season is in the works.
Did you like Top of the Lake or The Kettering Incident? If so, you’ll love Black Spot. Do you take your murder mysteries with a side order of Gallic shrugs? Do you like reading your TV (French dialog, English subtitles)? Tune in here. If you have a low tolerance for the downbeat or for the possibly paranormal, however, you may want to hold out for the BBC’s upcoming Maigret adaptations and get your French crime in a place where the sun also shines.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. The closest his standalone international thriller Doha 12 gets to a forest is Central Park. Though his art-crime novels The Collection and Stealing Ghosts don’t visit any small, isolated towns, they still include plenty of trouble. His Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology, but no trees.