Peste control

Peste control

By Michael Pickard
March 19, 2024


After Albert Camus’ seminal 1947 novel La Peste (The Plague) topped reading charts during the pandemic, writer George-Marc Benamou and director Antoine Garceau reveal why they wanted to adapt it for television and how they have updated the story for modern audiences.

Before La Peste (The Plague) debuted earlier this month on France 2, there was only one opinion director Antoine Garceau wanted to hear. The series is a dystopian retelling of Albert Camus’ classic novel about a plague that sweeps through a city, and Garceau was keen to hear the thoughts of the author’s daughter, Catherine, before it went on general release.

“She’s 78 and living in the South of France in the same house where Albert lived at the end of his life. So I went there to this little city in Provence and showed her the four episodes,” he tells DQ. “She saw one, two, we had a break, no comments. Third episode, fourth episode and, at the end, she applauded and said it was fantastic. She said, ‘Everything you have added, I think my father would have loved.’ For me, it was the best reward.”

The 1947 novel charts a plague that sweeps through the French Algerian city of Oran in 1940, a story that has since been read as an allegory of French resistance to Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

In the series adaptation, the story is transposed to a dystopian future in 2030 and set in an anonymous Mediterranean location in the South of France where a group of residents attempt to save their city as it falls into the grip of a devastating virus outbreak.

It opens as Doctor Bernard Rieux finds the corpse of a rat on his landing, and is then contacted by journalist Sylvain Rambert, who is investigating a series of strange disappearances. Rieux suggests he take a closer look at the mayor, who is willing to do anything to save the summer season – while a mysterious illness begins to spread through the town.

La Peste (The Plague) updates Albert Camus’ 1940-set story to a near future in the South of France

Frédéric Pierrot stars as Rieux, with Hugo Becker as Rambert, Judith Chemla as Lucie Ferrières, Johan Heldenberg as Jean Tarrou and Sofia Essaïdi as Laurence Molinier. Bruno Raddaelli plays the mayor, Pierre Cariou.

For writer Georges-Marc Benamou, who wrote the scripts with Gilles Taurand, the project was a chance to reconnect with a novel that had a profound effect on him during his teenage years.

“The Plague deeply resonated with me, captivating me with its characters and the depiction of an isolated city, alongside its allegory of resistance against Nazism,” he says. “The documentary I made in 2020, The Lives of Albert Camus, surprisingly struck a chord and attracted a vast audience. The feedback from the documentary seemed to align with a period where both society and France were reassessing their perception of Albert Camus. This inspired me to pursue the challenge of adapting The Plague and securing the rights for it.”

The novel has previously been adapted for cinema, but Benamou recognised a serialised approach might better suit the story, a view that also secured the blessing of Catherine Camus. Believing it was “essential for the series to be captivating,” the writers pushed the story into a contemporary setting where it could better reflect “current issues of totalitarianism, distinct from those of 1940.”

Importantly, this decision also meant the story would resonate more strongly with viewers who are less than five years removed from the Covid pandemic – a period of time that pushed Camus’ novel back to the top of the reading charts similarly to how audiences were drawn to watch 2011 film Contagion.

“Consequently, we changed the storyline to a slightly dystopian 2030, situated within a totalitarian regime in a French Riviera city,” Benamou says. “This series’ world has totalitarian – occasionally Putin-like – traits, mirroring a society under extensive surveillance.”

It focuses on a group of residents attempting to save their city amid a deadly outbreak

Writing the four-part series, their main focus was on the human aspect, particularly the medical team, and those few key characters who stand out – Rieux, the adventurer Jean Tarrou, Rambert and Father Paneloux. “The plague serves as a lens through which we see various responses to crisis, including bravery, fear, cowardice and monstrosity,” Benamou notes. “It reveals true natures and acts as a metaphor. While some individuals stand firm against the plague, others give in. Yet the threat of the plague always remains.”

The approach he and Taurand chose was one that was never too literal. “The pandemic inspired in us a certain boldness by venturing into dystopian themes to explore impending threats: widespread surveillance, the danger of natural selection and emerging forms of totalitarianism,” he continues. “We felt it was essential to include these elements in our adaptation, given its modern context. They subtly exist in the original novel like lurking shadows, but we felt compelled to highlight and expand their influence. This was particularly important because it added depth to the character interactions, uncovered internal struggles and brought out subtle distinctions. By focusing on the women characters, we aimed to infuse the adaptation with a more human touch.”

Understandably, Benamou says ignoring the real-world pandemic was not an option, and it informed the decision to explore the concepts of Camus’ novel in a dystopian setting. But starting the project during the pandemic, the writers faced intense competition from rival bidders for the rights to the novel.

Benamou and Taurand triumphed, backed by France TV and supported by Catherine Camus. They then sought out Garceau to direct the miniseries, after he previously partnered with Taurand on another adaptation for France 2, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles.

“The channel already trusted him, and so did we, of course,” Benamou says. “Therefore, we gave him a lot of freedom in his directorial choices and casting – except for Frédéric Pierrot, who was suggested by Catherine Camus.”

When he was approached about the project, Garceau didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. But other people questioned his decision to work on the series, which is produced by Siècle Productions in coproduction with Umedia and distributed by Oble. “When I started working on the project, everyone said to me, ‘Why are you working on the adaptation of a masterpiece? How are you going to do it?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. Let’s see.’ I had the shadow of the big man on my back but at some point I said, ‘Albert Camus is behind me; I will try not to betray him but I have to move on.’”

The creative team received the seal of approval from Camus’ daughter Catherine

By that point, the scripts had already been written, placing Camus’ novel in a modern surveillance state led by an authoritarian government, though the name of the city is never mentioned, lending credibility to the idea that events in the series could happen anywhere.

In fact, the fictional setting is a jigsaw of locations from across the South of France, including Marseille, Nice and Aix-en-Provence. It also features a mixture of architectural settings, blending the old and the ultra-modern.

“We picked locations that haven’t changed for many years, like where the doctor lives, his office and city hall – locations that are very similar to what they looked like in the 1940s – and also mixed them with very modern locations like the theatre or the surveillance centre,” Garceau says. “It was the same for the outfits of the actors, to be classical and modern, just to keep the idea that we don’t know when it happens.”

The director also wanted to bring additional energy to the brightly coloured, vivid series through his camerawork, using two cameras to capture the large ensemble of characters that have been lifted from the pages of the novel – including new female characters not present in the book.

“We have to move quite fast to move from one to another, but we never to lose them on the way,” he says. “It was a bit tricky. We shot a lot – we had a lot of material.”

His preparations with the actors included a script readthrough with the main cast before breaking them down into workshop groups of two and three. “It’s very important in the preparation process to have time before [filming] because, on the set, if they start asking, ‘When do I say this? What is my motivation?’ you’ve fucked up,” the director says. “You don’t have time for that, so everything has to be clear for the actors before starting the shoot. Once we start, they always have questions, but the idea is to have small questions, not big questions.

“It was really like a theatre troupe. They were happy to work together and liked working together. It’s not always the case, even if the director’s always saying it was a real pleasure shooting everyone. That’s not always the case, but in this case it was really true.”

His greatest challenge was filming the entire series in 42 days, while many scenes feature numerous actors and moments of action. “Every scene was important,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of episodes of Call My Agent and, when we were shooting comedy scenes, people talking in episodes, walking and talking, it was always pleasant to shoot. In The Plague, it was very intense. It was also a bit stressful because of Albert Camus and the responsibility of doing this work, but challenges are meant to be taken.”

That four million viewers tuned into the first two episodes on linear and catch-up is proof it was a challenge worth taking, and that Camus’ novel still resonates with audiences today despite what the world has lived through in recent years.

“I’ve often reflected on the very strong and quite universal sensitivity to the work of Camus,” Benamou says. “Albert Camus stands out as a seminal intellectual figure of the 20th century for his opposition to both Nazi and Stalinist forms of tyranny, setting him apart from contemporaries like Sartre, who had endorsed the Soviet regime and communism. Camus is the man who was right and there is something in his music, in his words, in his approach, in his life story that makes him a brother to mankind.”

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