A few months ago the much-anticipated fourth series of the hit French show, Call My Agent! (Dix Per Cent) landed on Netflix. The show, which follows the workings of a talent agency in central Paris, is like an up-market Extras in that each episode features a cameo from a celebrity guest or two. Thankfully, unlike Extras, the show is altogether more optimistic, with much less Ricky Gervais and much more of the alluring grandeur of French cinema.
Anchoring the plot are the four shareholders in the agency: Andréa (Camille Cottin), Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert), Gabriel (Grégory Montel) and Arlette (Liliane Rovère). The conflict, loyalty and disloyalty between the four of them gives much needed continuity to the series, which, by being cameo-oriented, could easily feel disjointed. Their assistants, Camille, Noémie, and, especially Hervé, the fluttering giddy assistant played by Nicolas Maury, add pizzazz and absurdity.
Cottin’s Andréa has generally been considered the breakout star of the series, going on all the press tours, poised at the centre of the promotional posters. But it is de Montalembert’s Mathias, the charming yet ultimately foolish Machiavel, who grounds season four in his Parsifal-like search for redemption after the breakdown of his personal and professional life. The essence of the drama – his internal conflict between love and power – is oftentimes amusing and, just occasionally, profoundly moving.
However beguiling the central cast is – and they are all glorious in their own ways – a large share of the show’s appeal is in its celebrity cameos. More specifically, it is the combination and interaction of the mundanity of the agency (albeit in Paris’s first arrondissement!) and the high aspirations of those enjoying their brief moments in the limelight.
In general, the cameos are one of the shows peculiar ironies: that its strength as a TV show is borne from its high reverence for cinema. It is this reverence which, no doubt, has endeared the show to a wide audience. The viewer enjoys seeing the god-like giants of French cinema shrink into the small screen, their mystical star power replaced with the vapidity and cruel insecurities exacerbated by fame.
The cameos in season four were a mixed bag. Sigourney Weaver’s poor French makes hers jilted, like they drafted in her Madame Tussauds’ wax work, and lacking the fluency and muscular ardour to compete with the main cast. That she is underutilised is a shame, as arguably the strongest female lead of 1980s Hollywood.
In contrast to Weaver’s underwhelming performance, Jean Reno, that six-foot bespectacled hot water bottle, is like the yin to the agency’s yang, restoring an emotional semblance to the agency’s increasingly apocalyptic financial predicament. His Christlike intervention of support for the agency, while consumed by a growing sense that showbiz is all “a bit meaningless” after being cast as Santa Claus, was perfectly judged.
Between these two, Franck Dubosc experiments with method acting, José Garcia goes on a wistful search for lost lovers, and, most amusing of all, Sandrine Kiberlain, a titan of French dramatic cinema, tries her hand at stand-up comedy.
Despite the star power (and even with the inimitable Charlotte Gainsbourg!) none of the latest season matched the heights of Juliette Binoche’s excruciating Cannes speech blunder, Isabelle Huppert’s workaholism, Audrey Fleurot’s mothering meltdown or Monica Bellucci’s romantic frustrations in previous series.
The French press has generally considered season four to represent a decline in standards in comparison with its previous outings, due in part to the departure of the show’s creator, Fanny Herrero. This is to confuse cause and effect. Call My Agent’s final outing, while without the home-run cameos of previous episodes, retains all the charm, quality and power of what has made its previous series so successful. Ultimately, while the viewer may come for the celebrity cameos, they are compelled to keep watching for the rich and often profound narrative arcs of the mainstay cast.
Illustration: Verity Laycock