Paris on the edge
Paris Police 1900 creator Fabien Nury joins stars Jérémie Laheurte and Evelyne Brochu to delve into the dark period crime drama, which follows a police investigation into a brutal murder against the backdrop of a city at breaking point.
In French history, the era spanning the end of the 19th century until the First World War is known as the belle époque. Translated as ‘fine period,’ it was a time characterised by aristocratic decadence, cultural exuberance and endemic poverty among members of the underclass.
Against this backdrop comes eight-part drama Paris Police 1900, which is inspired by real events and plays out in a city beset by the far-right, widespread antisemitism and rising anarchy. It’s 1899, the president has just died in suspicious circumstances and when police chief Louis Lépin is called out of retirement to restore order, the discovery of a headless torso found in a suitcase floating down the Seine sparks ambitious young detective Antoine Jouin into action to solve the heinous crime.
Meanwhile, corrupt officer and part-time hit man Joseph Fiersi enlists Meg Steinheil – a courtesan accused of killing the president during a sex act – to work for him as a spy, as this ensemble cast of characters cross paths amid murders, blackmail, riots, conspiracies and coups.
“Welcome to the dark side of Paris,” says creator Fabien Nury (Ouro). The writer originally set out to tell a noir story that would be the antithesis of a traditional period drama, shunning establishing shots of the Eiffel Tower for images of the city’s grubby underbelly to deliver an immersive, intense experience.
“The belle époque really wasn’t so belle,” he tells DQ. “It was a creative time but it was also brutal and barbaric. It was dark. In some ways, this feels [so different from the present that it’s] like the Middle Ages or a trip to Mars, but in other ways they’re just like us. There is this double feeling of being so far away yet feeling so close.
“What helped me bring unity to this is the belle époque dreamed of itself as a noir novel. In the theatres, it was the time of bloody, horrific shows at the Grand Guignol theatre; and in the press, there was this huge appetite for crime and crime fiction. Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allainwrote wrote for periodic newspapers and became classics of noir literature. I loved this kind of storytelling. I like to say it all starts with the brain but it ends with the guts. That’s where you want to go.”
The French-language show opens with Meg and French president Félix Faure getting extremely intimate, an experience that kills him where he sits. “That was the first scene I shot,” reveals Evelyne Brochu, who plays Meg. Rather than serving as a gratuitous introduction, the scene lays the groundwork for Meg’s journey through the story as a character whose status as a social power broker is offset by her gender in a world where women are second-class citizens.
“What I liked about her is she’s a very modern woman in a not very modern world,” the actor says. “She has this salon in Paris that everybody wants to be in and still she can’t have a bank account, so you have this woman who has power but who has no power and who still has to go through men to make ends meet.
“That first scene, I was wondering, ‘What kind of series is this?’ But then I realised just how feminist it is. I realised how necessary those scenes were to illustrate how strong and vulnerable she is. What particularly attracted me to her is how she has this actress side to her. She has to put on a character, and it’s nice for me and the viewer to see the truth behind the mask, how much effort she has to put into her schemes and how far she has to go just to get by. That’s fascinating and endearing and for an actress, and really fun as well.”
Nury’s intentions with Meg were to build an anti-heroine to rival the numerous anti-heroes who have been seen on screen and, more specifically, to create a character who resists the male tyranny of the age.
“They’ve got to be smarter because they play with an unfair deck of cards,” he says of the show’s female characters. “Most of them – even Maman Guérin [Anne Benoir], who’s rooting for evil – are clever characters and they’re powerful. What I loved with Meg is that she’s brave, she’s smart, she’s got a heart, but she’s also a scoundrel and she’s always planning.
“She’s half hero and half naughty girl facing her own limitations, and is someone who has a line she won’t cross. The overall arc for me was to have her fight for her dignity. The male characters have a defined set of cards to play with, whereas she’s the element of chaos. She disrupts the game more than anybody else.”
Elsewhere, police officer Antoine (Jérémie Laheurte) believes the corrupt police force can once again stand for justice and progress, which perhaps also illustrates the young investigator’s naivety.
“What I love about him is he bangs against all the walls. He’s so resilient,” Nury explains. Laheurte agrees: “That’s what makes him succeed. In real life, I am way more nervous. I feel like Fabien really helped me to calm down and understand the construction of the character. It was a great lesson for my own life. Antoine doesn’t jump to conclusions or throw himself into things. He analyses more and is laid back and then comes back with a plan.”
Brochu says she likes Antoine’s faith and hope, which stands up against the dark milieu of 1890s Paris. “His fragility in such a toxic masculine situation, and seeing him become stronger and owning his place and fighting hard to have his place, is very endearing. It’s something we don’t see a lot in TV: a male character with that much depth, fragility and strength.”
With real-life events and figures woven into the story, Nury undertook significant research for the series. But when it came to writing the scripts, he reveals that many of the pressures he felt during the scriptwriting phase of development made their way into the show.
“You feel like the policeman or the spy who’s fighting for their life because they [the crew] are coming after you. There are 100 of them, they’re shooting four minutes [of screen time] a day and you’ve got a blank page – and they’re coming,” he says.
“There was a feeling that they would all know and I would lose dignity, so Meg loses dignity. She hits rock bottom. That was a very hard scene to do, and what Evelyne delivered was so amazing. Then I felt lost in a maze, so I lost Antoine in a maze; and then I felt hunted by dogs, so Fiersi [Thibaut Evrard] was hunted by dogs. It’s a very thoughtful process at the beginning but it’s like riding a mammoth. It’s bigger than you, it goes where it wants. It doesn’t listen to you. In the end, you take rocks to a knife fight and you go at it.”
Brochu compares Paris Police 1900 to HBO’s seminal drama The Wire, which featured a policeman and an overarching case in each season but also spoke to a different layer of society.
“What Fabien did is talk about us as well,” she states. “There’s this force of evil, this antisemitic guy [Jules Guérin, played by Hubert Delattre] who actually existed and who used his arrogance and sense of showmanship to stir up deep-rooted, brutal emotions that are locked into people’s sense of misery – and this is happening today. Then you have Louis Lépin [Marc Barbe] who’s the establishment and there’s a tension between the two forces. It felt super modern and real.
“It’s also gripping and funny, which is rare,” the Canadian actor continues. “It’s a tale that’s so rich, so deep and so dark, but there are moments to breathe and have fun, so there’s an enjoyment side to it. The production values are incredible and to see so many humans colliding in a violent way, in an erotic way, so many faces, people crossing paths on the street on top of each other… it feels like a remedy to what we’re living right now.”
Inspired by Italian tragi-comedies, Nury believes humour is important no matter how dark the subject matter at the heart of the story. “You’re supposed to play with the entire piano, not only one side,” he says. “Humour is not just for relief, it can also be ironic and it can tell you things. Even the most horrific scenes, there’s always something funny, some absurd detail. You don’t want to hide that. The bad guys are completely grotesque characters and the thing that’s frightening about them is they’re not isolated, they have friends. They should not have friends. They have success; they should not have success.
“What I like about Antoine and Meg is they don’t view themselves as heroes. In the end, they’ll try to do the right things without getting applause. I hate it in films when there’s a war, New York is destroyed and, in the end, everyone applauds. What about the victims and the tragedy of it? What about the reality of death? That’s something you have to convey in noir, otherwise you want to work in fantasy.”
A Canal+ Creation Originale produced by Tetra Media Fiction and AFPI, the series was filmed across eight months in studios and on location around Paris. During that time, Brochu and Laheurte were completely immersed in an beautifully realised recreation of 19th century Paris – the show’s budget hit €2m (US$2.4m) per episode – with help from production designer Pierre Quefféléan and costume designer Anaïs Romand, among others.
“It wasn’t only time travel, it was a trip to a Paris you’ll never visit,” Brochu says. “Living in Paris for the shoot and being in these castles that haven’t been inhabited in 100 years and wearing the corset, it was a complete immersion.”
“[The actors] were brave because some scenes were really demanding,” says Nury, who directed episode eight himself after the first four instalments were helmed by Despaux and episodes five to seven were overseen by Frédérich Balekdjian. “Some scenes I shot with Jeremie, Thibaut and Christophe Montenez [playing Gabriel Sabran] were at night. There was a murder and a fight and it was under heavy rain. You’re not supposed to do this in Paris in February – it’s cold. Take number one, they’re soaked. It’s 8pm. We’re there until 5am. They had wetsuits under their clothes to help them a little but, by midnight, they were soaked and were just really freezing.
“With Evelyne, I had some beautiful scenes – a fight in the butcher’s shop and also some dialogue scenes with Patrick D’Assumcao, who plays Puybaraud, the meanest and most women-hating character I’ve ever written. Patrick is a great actor and he relishes every single line of meanness he’s got to give. I remember two long scenes with Evelyne and him and he’s walking around her, slowly, threatening her. He’s this very sadistic toad and she’s facing him and has to have the strength to keep seducing him until she has the upper hand, and then she’ll get him. There’s a lot of intelligence; it’s very subtle and Evelyne has it all.”
Though Antoine and Evelyne are largely strangers through season one, Nury says their relationship is something viewers may see develop in a potential second season. He also praises the Canal+ for taking risks to bring Paris Police 1900 to the screen. StudioCanal has international rights to the series, which debuts in France today.
“I don’t think it’s so common, even in crime stories, to have such a dark, daring period piece,” he adds. “A lot of chances were taken. This is an expensive show and it’s not reassuring. It’s a bit frightening, but they liked it and they continued to like it as it got more frightening. They believed in it, and it shows in the end. It’s more daring, a little darker, a little funnier too and, hopefully, more truthful.”