The top 6 French TV series make great viewing and many take a similar path to Scandi dramas. They'll keep you enthralled. The two latest however are very different: Versailles follows the decadent life of Louis XIV during the building of his great palace; Marseille is a political intrigue.
Versailles is the latest French TV series to hit the small screens in the UK. Canal+ has produced the period blockbuster, but it’s produced in English and stars English actors and the French are splendidly indignant about the attack on their culture. The defenders say it shows how international the French are becoming; detractors howl at the debasement of their culture. The major reason for the English influence is more practical; there are limits on the amount of finance that could be raised in France. Versailles is the most costly series ever produced in France, involving a budget of around €30 million for the first ten episodes. So even with a little changing of the rules, there was still a shortfall. Hence the decision to shoot in English using English actors to ensure an international audience, and more pertinently, greater sales. Whatever the intrigue behind the scenes, just sit back and enjoy what is a great blockbuster of a series, with plenty of violence and even more sex. The new series is set at the time of the construction of the great château of Versailles, with a thoroughly decadent Louis XIV and a lot of romping in lavish settings.
Locations for Versailles
20 locations in the Ile de France region were used for the series, including the magnificent Palace of Versailles just outside Paris as well as the nearby imposing Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, the building that caused so much jealousy and bad feeling between the King and his finance minister, Fouquet. The Versailles palace is the star; the series tells the story of how the Sun King, Louis XIV, transformed the hunting lodge he had inherited from his father into the palace that became the envy of the world.
With other series becoming major tourist attractions, such as Game of Thrones (Iceland) and Downton Abbey (UK), it seems that both the great chateaux will be welcoming yet more visitors.
Other films using Versailles as a main character and gorgeous location include Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen, Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen and Sofia Coppola’s lavish Marie-Antoinette.
Netflix’s first French-language original series is very different from Versaille but has created just as much controversy. It’s produced entirely in France and stars Gerard Depardieu who according to all reports, has completely cleaned up his act for the series, appears on time and sober on the set and has become a paragon of virtue. The film is about a cocaine-snorting mayor who has been in office for 25 years (Depardieu), and a highly ambitious young man who sleeps with any woman if it might help his career and who is trying to take his place. It’s been called America’s remake of House of Cards. It’s also the affirmation that Netflix is trying to move seriously into Europe.
Marseille is filmed all over the city is the real star. Scenes take place inside the Stade Velodrome, home of Olympique de Marseille football club, the Quartier Nord, the harbour, Town Hall and more. It doesn’t paint Marseille in a great light and will inevitably take people back to The French Connection. But it’s an exciting film which brings France’s politics and corruption to the fore.
Don’t let the film put you off going to Marseille. It’s one of the great cities of France and as a visitor you don’t see the downside.
First released in 2005, Spiral remains one of Europe’s most popular television series. It deals with the law-enforcement and judicial system of France, with a great cast of tough cops (led by the charismatic Caroline Proust who plays police captain Laure Berthoud), impossibly sexy judicial characters, a powerful and devious judge and a whole host of other great characters. It pulls no punches as the plots unfold and fingers get extremely dirty. The producer admits to being inspired by The Wire, though there are comparisons with The Killing.
Spiral is shot throughout Paris, with series 3 centring around La Villette in the 19th arrondissement which involves a police investigation around an Albanian prostitution ring of eastern Europeans. Visitors to the 19th go for the Museum for the Science and Industry Museum at La Villette, where a massive urban development programme has transformed the area.
The Returned (Les Revenants)
Based on the 2004 film Les Revenants, the French series is filmed in the Alps of the Haute Savoie. A group of men, women and children return to life from a death lasting several years and try to resume a normal existence. It takes place in a small mountain village, with the dramatic backdrop of the mountains adding extra tension to the supernatural story.
Most scenes were filmed around Annecy Lake with the fictional village lost in a valley and threatened by a dam. The Tignes Dam, created in the 1950s to generate hydroelectric power, is impressive. Today it’s a work of art with a huge Hercules fresco painted on the massive wall before the 1992 Olympics. Other locations include Menthon Saint Bernard, a little town on the lake with an imposing 13th-century medieval castle owned by the same family for about 1,000 years. There’s a fantastic library which you can visit, with over 12,000 old books and texts, some written on parchment, sheepskin and goatskin. The castle might look familiar; it’s apparently the building that Walt Disney saw when staying nearby and inspired his creation of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Annecy le Vieux, north east of Annecy Lake was used for Adele’s house. Sevrier has the Lake Pub where the bar scenes were shot.
Un Village Francais (A French Village)
Un Village Français (A French Village) was first shown in 2009 and was the first major French TV series taking on collaboration and resistance during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Unlike Holocaust which caused such a sensation, and shock, in Germany when it took on the plight of German Jews, Un Village Français won various awards and nominations for its subtle exploration of what it’s like to be a collaborator. It’s not judgemental and reminds me of the Memorial de Caen museum of World War II, which has a film of a French professor asking how you would act given the threats to your own family by the Nazis if you didn’t collaborate. It’s set in Villeneuve, a fictional sub prefecture in the Jura in eastern France which was part of German-occupied France.
Braquo has been described as the French The Wire (HBO). A violent police series which follows Parisian detectives who are ruthless in their methods to achieve justice and ‘cross the yellow line‘ as they break all the rules. It begins when a colleague of the four police officers commits suicide during a cast where he is blamed. Now in its 4th series, it starts in Marseille and ends in Paris.