Behind the headlines
The producers behind French true crime dramas Le Mensonge (Something to Hide) and Laëtitia tell DQ about the background to these series and why the genre continues to fascinate viewers.
A mayor with higher political ambitions is accused of rape by his grandson, splitting a family apart until he is acquitted 15 years when his accuser admits he lied. A young woman who has grown up in the care system is kidnapped and murdered. Lifted straight from the headlines, these are both real-life stories from France that have been dramatised as TV miniseries, building on the global fascination with true crime drama.
The first is called Something to Hide, or to give its French title, Le Mensonge, which translates simply as The Lie. Claude has succeeded in everything in his life, with a happy marriage and a successful career that has led him to become mayor of his city. He now intends to become a senator. But for Lucas, his beloved grandson, life is much less cheerful: his parents are divorced, he is not at ease with himself and then one day, he accuses his grandfather of rape. It is an allegation that turns their worlds upside down for 15 years until the truth finally emerges.
The four-part miniseries (pictured above), which debuted in 2020, is based on the autobiographical novel written by Christian Iacono, the man accused of the crime by his grandson Gabriel. Thalie Images producer Julie Lafore came to Iacono’s book after one of his family friends told her about it after seeing her first production, Tuer un homme, which itself was based on a true story about a shop owner who killed a man during an armed robbery.
“I was struck by the mayor’s tragedy and the emotional and legal ups and downs that made it such a moving family saga,” says Lafore, adding that she was “deeply shocked” by Iacono’s story. “It’s such a rare case in the history of the French Republic because it really is an exceptional occurrence for a court decision to be revised. The incredible psychological and emotional twist that took place in the Iacono family is what made this possible. I wanted to make this adaptation to recount this judicial pardon.”
Having picked out director Vincent Garenq (Présumé Coupable) to helm the series, Lafore took the project to broadcaster France 2. “It seemed like the best channel for this ‘home turf’ project, and our fiction team was confident Vincent had everything it takes to tackle this true story with the precision and consideration it required,” she notes. “Vincent went out of his way to make it as exciting and as moving as possible, as per the broadcaster’s wishes. But we chose to avoid certain subjects and, more importantly, to depoliticise the case. We also changed the characters’ names. But this adaptation is nevertheless very close to the truth.”
All the family members relating to the original case were consulted, while Iacono and his grandson followed every step of the writing process. Lafore says Garenq was “deeply inspired by the contrast between the vibrant sun of the Mediterranean coast, where the grandfather lives, and the bleak hues of the Parisian setting, where the grandson endures the sadness and travails of his parents’ divorce.”
The director was also very careful to portray the courtrooms and prisons accurately, Lafore notes, adding: “It was the first time the real Fresnes Prison [near Paris] had ever served as a backdrop to a fictional show, and that really makes the actors’ performances all the more intense. You can really feel it in the series.”
Lafore says she is a big fan of the true crime genre and is hopeful La Mensonge can act as a catalyst for more dramas like this in France.
“Throughout the development and production of this series,” she continues, “we were all asking ourselves the question that anyone, including a viewer of this kind of true crime story, would naturally ask: what would I have done if it had happened to me? And more to the point in the case of this particular narrative: what happens when we’re unable to express our feelings to those we love?”
Similarly adapted from a book, six-part miniseries Laëtitia explores the true story of Laëtitia Perrais, a young waitress who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2011, having spent her youth in the care system. Based on Ivan Jablonka’s Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes, the show is the first French series to have been selected by the Sundance Festival, where it was screened in 2020 after launching locally in 2019. CPB Films and L’Ile Clavel produced the show for France 2.
L’Ile Clavel’s Judith Louis and CPB’s Jean Labib decided they wanted to work together on the project after Louis called Labib and urged him to read Jablonka’s book. Two days later, they agreed to adapt it for TV. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, a best documentary Oscar winner in 2002 for Un coupable idéal, then joined the project during negotiations for the book rights.
“The quality of the writing was, of course, instrumental in our decision,” Labib tells DQ. “It was our starting block. It’s interesting because it’s not only a classic investigation of a monstrous news story, developed by Ivan in his capacity as a historian, but it’s also a fictional work, although very much based on the truth. This gives the story many different layers, and it’s written with such tact and dignity that it safeguarded us from straying into the realm of voyeurism.”
Convinced there was too much material for a 90-minute feature-length drama, France Télévisions director of fiction Anne Holmes backed the series early on, with the producers acknowledging the extent to which Laëtitia differs from the pubcaster’s usual fare.
“That’s actually a good thing, in our opinion,” Louis continues, “because this series is such a unique item that it’s not part of an editorial policy within France Télévisions, unlike a classic crime or novelistic series, or even a comedy. This type of project really brings home the importance of public service broadcasting.” The show was written by Antoine Lacomblez, who had previously worked with Lestrade on miniseries 3 x Manon and Manon 20 Ans. Louis and Labib say there was a contradiction in how the story was developed, with the need to balance the fictional elements against the facts.
“The premise was to stay as close as possible to reality,” Louis notes. “The only way we could balance the monstrosity of the events was to give this 18-year-old girl back her dignity and her life. We needed to demonstrate what her existence had been like up until the day she was murdered, as well as what might have happened had she continued to live. Having endured a very complicated childhood, she was gradually pulling herself up out of the gloom and drama she was accustomed to, displaying bravery and verve.
“There’s also another sensitive aspect to the series: we needed to address the men who led the investigation – judges, magistrates, law enforcement – and illustrate their honesty and integrity, especially given the sensitive nature of this particular case. We basically wanted to show the naked truth of this extraordinary affair, as well as the fate and path Laëtitia and her twin sister might have experienced had it not occurred. We wanted to use them as vehicles to portray a forfeited youth and a social class out of control.”
The societal issues at the heart of Laëtitia have remained front and centre of people’s minds in France since the tragic events took place, Labib says, with viewers “torn between curiosity and horror. They feel the need to understand how something so gruesome could possibly have happened, and fiction helps them reflect upon societal topics that are more than simply news stories.
“Subtlety is the key,” he continues. “Laëtitia stands out thanks to its outstanding screenplay and treatment. These features give it a personal, psychological and even sociological dimension. When you’re working on such a heavy topic, you obviously need to show it as it is but with a certain amount of modesty and delicacy. It is both close to the truth and deeply moving.”
For Julia Schulte, senior VP of international series at France TV Distribution, which handles global sales of both Something to Hide and Laëtitia, the popularity of true crime drama has been driven by the growth of global streaming platforms and built upon the success of documentaries in the same genre such as Who Killed Little Gregory? and Lestrade-directed The Staircase.
“Even though the narrative is linked to a particular time and place, a true crime series has a universal aspect and tackles global, controversial societal matters such as racism and gender-related issues,” Schulte says. “These stories are so fascinating because the viewer can see them from the victims’ viewpoint while feeling a certain closeness to their assailant. But these stories provide more than just voyeuristic pleasure; they also tell us something about human nature and the sometimes harsh world we live in.”
Something to Hide, she says, highlights the difficulties and complexities that can be faced when trying to establish the truth, with viewers sharing the uncertainty of many of the characters on screen.
Laëtitia, meanwhile, was a “true revelation,” using aesthetics and an upbeat mood to portray a brutal aspect of society and reveal the personality of a cold-blooded murderer. “As Lestrade says, this story is more about Laëtitia’s life than her death,” Schulte notes. “The brutality the series depicts relates less to the murder itself than to the hopeless world she grew up in, moving from one chaotic situation to another from a very young age. It sheds light on how a poor family structure and a careless society can destroy a child’s and young woman’s destiny.”
The France TV Distribution exec believes writers must also be very considerate and authentic to respect the families involved and stay true to real events. “In a well-written story, there’s always this fine line at play between the factual and fictional elements. But having actors play the characters can make for a more authentic story than if it were produced in documentary form – in the latter format, people may come across as more artificial as soon as the cameras are rolling.”
The trend for true crime drama shows no sign of slowing down, with many more stories to be told. “The whole genre is also opening up to a broader perspective: it’s going beyond serial killers, embracing political crimes and various social issues,” Schulte says. “We could also move into the area of environmental crimes and various other subjects that are of interest to the modern audience. It all ties into viewers’ desire to understand the world we’re living in.”