The French television show known locally as Dix Pour Cent returns for a fourth and final season this month, and top of the list of why people love it so are the indignities it subjects guest stars to, each and every episode. Juliette Binoche slurring, dress askew, on the main stage at Cannes. Jean Dujardin going full method and fully feral after a particularly draining period role (he lives under a tree in his garden and stinks to high heaven). Monica Bellucci — and maybe this is most shocking of all — failing spectacularly when she goes out on the pull. Suddenly the English name of the show becomes self-evident: Call My Agent!
This dramedy, based in the fictional Paris talent agency Agence Samuel Kerr (ASK), was a hit from the moment it launched on the terrestrial station France 2 in 2015. It follows the ups and downs of ASK’s four agents, who are left in the lurch when its founder dies suddenly on holiday in Brazil.
ASK must be saved, and the team — the suave, sharklike Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert); the old-school impresario Arlette (Liliane Rovère) and her Jack Russell, Jean Gabin; the teddy-bearish Gabriel (Grégory Montel); and the striking Andréa, a female Don Juan in skinny jeans (Camille Cottin, the breakout star of the show) — must work together to survive.
But how does anyone work together in such a dog-eat-dog industry? And how does anyone achieve anything when the talent has such a mind of its own? (Another highlight is Béatrice “Betty Blue” Dalle refusing to do a nude scene as a corpse — she takes refuge, naturally, in a nunnery.) That’s without even factoring in Mathias’s secret daughter, who has turned up to work at ASK, or that— this is France, after all — everyone is only two glasses of champagne away from shagging someone in the office next door.
En bref, Call My Agent has been a sensation, garnering as many fans abroad as at home. The novelist Jonathan Coe tweeted that it was “the sharpest, lightest, funniest, warmest thing on screen at the moment”, while others have dubbed it “a total gem”, or “a rare thing: a well-written French TV comedy-drama”. If the latter feels a bit like a backhanded compliment, it’s still annoyingly true. Despite the undeniable success of Spiral, The Returned or The Bureau, these are still relatively scarce gems on the French TV market, and of course those aren’t really known for being funny. Call My Agent is.
This explains why, reluctant at first, French stars have been queuing up to feature in it; playing themselves, apparently, but also running a long way with the joke. Highlights include Isabelle Huppert sending up her notorious workaholism, and Isabelle Adjani joking about her age. “I’m 28 as well!” the sixty-something star pipes up blithely when talking to a young bad-boy director, imploring to be cast in his latest film. It’s not quite clear, on the spot, if we’re meant to be laughing at or with her. Most surprising of all, it was Adjani who added the line.
The novelist Jonathan Coe tweeted that it was “the sharpest, lightest, funniest, warmest thing on screen at the moment.”
The show is based on the memoirs and experiences of a former agent, Dominique Besnehard, who has had a long history of handling the great and the good, particularly at their less great and less good moments: one famous story has it that he was in a car with Jeanne Moreau when a security guard told her he thought she was dead. She was not pleased. Yet it took the arrival of the screenwriter Fanny Herrero to suss out what the premise of the show should be; it’s not the stars who have the problems here really, but the agents. Also to find its distinctive tone: cheeky but loving, full of raised eyebrows, but not utterly jaded and blasé.
Herrero’s taste was formed by the golden age of the 2000s, hits such as Sex and the City, The West Wing, Six Feet Under and Friday Night Lights, and it’s these shows that were more influential, she has said, than others with a more obvious lineage.
“It would be too simple to think that Entourage, Extras or Episodes inspired Dix Pour Cent,” she told a French newspaper. In fact her “biggest influence” was Friday Night Lights, she said, “where you really live the story along with the characters, and there’s also the concept of a big symbolic family … There, everything is filtered through the context of American football; in Dix Pour Cent it goes through this small agency.”
Of course, you need the stars as well, and this was apparently tough at first, despite the size of Besnehard’s address book. The director Cédric Klapisch, who co-produced the first series, said that about 30 big names turned down a part in the first series, to the point where they didn’t know if they could shoot. Worse still, the French megastar Sophie Marceau, who had agreed to do the first episode, pulled out. (“Hiroshima was basically nothing compared to that,” Herrero joked.) Perhaps Marceau’s refusal had to do with the episode’s plotline of a 40-year-old actress who is ditched from a Tarantino movie because she is “too old”.
“You do need a certain kind of courage to play your own character on-screen,” Klapisch said in an interview. “In Anglo-Saxon countries actors like playing with their public image. In France it’s more complicated, there’s a snobbery based around being ‘serious’.” Besnehard agreed: “French stars often have a problem with self-mockery. Playing with their public image scares them.” (The Belgian actress Cécile de France gamely took the Marceau part instead, and had a ball.)
The show is based on the memoirs and experiences of a former agent, Dominique Besnehard, who has had a long history of handling the great and the good, particularly at their less great and less good moments.
Still, the show remains, however you look at it, deeply French — far more so than Netflix’s other supposedly great Gallic offering du jour, Emily in Paris. Whereas the latter is a garish cartoon confectionery that traffics mindlessly in basic stereotypes, Call My Agent! is a more delicate treat, a light but crunchy macaron that deploys the same types, but in far more sophisticated ways. Actually it is specifically Parisian in that everyone huffs about the drinks order but shrugs about sex. But still it has a heart.
Nowhere is this more the case than with Cottin’s Andréa, who hogs the screen as a short-fused, all-seducing, Camembert-scoffing lesbian. She has become the nation’s unexpected darling, rather like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose version of Fleabag she appeared in in France (renamed Mouche).
The final series, which was broadcast in France last autumn and now reaches the rest of us, has a glamorous roster, as usual, including Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sigourney Weaver. It was supposed to be even starrier, but Gérard Depardieu apparently pulled out of his episode just before filming (Jean Reno stepped in instead). Clearly, for some stars, the show’s irreverence is still beyond the pale — Catherine Deneuve is another who turned down Besnehard’s invitations to the end.
Inevitably and ironically, the show has succumbed to dramas such as the ones it portrays. A few years back it was announced that Herrero would not be returning to write the fourth season. If she pleaded exhaustion at the time, she has been much clearer since in saying that, as the only woman at the top of the creative team, sexism was working against her. In fact her main beef was that she wanted to be the series’s showrunner — a role where someone oversees writing, direction and production. It’s common in American TV, as with Matthew Weiner and Mad Men. However, in French TV, still obsessed with the concept of the director-as-auteur, this notion barely exists. Besnehard and co said non.
This points us to another unresolved tension in Call My Agent! — a tension that, annoyingly, is what made it so good in the first place. It is a television show that operates as a weird love affair with French cinema; it’s the product of a film agent, an older man, who came courting telly to tell his story. When he managed to do so, thanks to a younger woman fully versed in the power of what television can do, he seems to have refused to relinquish total control. And it’s a stubbornness that perhaps reflects the broader culture, when you consider how few French TV shows have managed to excel on the global stage. In America and the UK there is now more collaboration between the small screen and the movies. In France cinema won’t quite come down off its perch, and television can’t quite step up.
Chances are you will enjoy the final season without giving a second thought to this behind-the-scenes drama. There is plenty of that already on screen as the agents plot, quarrel, scramble and scream, fall apart and fall in love. What’s more, the show probably isn’t over. Besnehard recently said he’d love to do a reunion episode — but as a film, obviously. And Herrero? She’s fine. She has a development deal with Netflix.
Louis Wise is a freelance journalist covering celebrity culture
Season Four of Call My Agent! is now on Netflix