It’s fair to say that the history of crime drama is not studded with stories set in the world of football, nor any sports. You can broaden that statement out to drama as a whole, in fact, with only The Manageress and, ahem, Footballers’ Wives as recent examples that spring to mind. So it’s a curious start to my Walter Presents watching stint – a French crime drama that’s set in around a small town in the north of France, and using its second division football team as a foundation for a whodunit story. But before you turn away, there’s good news: you don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy it and the sport is only a small part of the story. One word of warning, though… Match Day (or Virage Nord to give it its French title) is available to watch on Walter Presents and because of the nature of this on-demand service some people may have watched one episode, or all three. However many episodes you may have watched, it’s worth noting that there are spoilers ahead.
Saying all that, the action does start during a football match, where RC Arcanville win and score a penalty that helps them to avoid relegation. In the ensuing tumult a fan – Yorick Couturier (Arthur Jacquinn) – is stabbed in the stands and dies in the tunnel. Alas, poor Yorick indeed. Prime suspect is daughter of the RC Arcanville head coach Franck Perrucci (Christophe Kourotchkine), Mathilde (Olivia Ross) who’s found holding the murder weapon.
Hearing the news, Paris cop Alex Perrucci (Judith Davis) comes back to her home town to try and find out what happened and to see if her sister really did it. It’s quickly established that she didn’t. In fact it’s established a little too neatly.
From then on Alex’s presence in Arcanville is resented by the local force – especially young police woman Jessica (Nina Meurisse), who’s feeling very territorial and is extremely wary of this hotshot detective from Paris who’s taken it upon herself to shadow the investigation. In fact Alex is doing more than shadowing and she’s quietly starting to conduct her own investigation on the side. Her return to her home town has also stirred up old feelings and memories – that of her relationship with her sister, Mathilde (who’s having relationship problems with her husband Icham), her father Franck and her deceased mother.
These relationships are at the core of Match Day, and it’s interesting to note that they’re all between three female characters. This welcome gender openness sets Match Day apart many other crime dramas, as do its gay characters. As Alex investigates and often outwits the local force (much to Jessica’s chagrin) it’s clear that she doesn’t play by the rules, and when she discovers that Yorick was friends with young gay man Alan (Théo Cholbi) and that they often crossed the border into Belgium to work in a seedy club (where they masturbated in booths for the pleasure of clients), the victims slightly shady past comes into focus.
It all leads to a match-fixing scandal involving high-ranking football officials.
All this slow-burning, considered drama is played out under the bruised, slate-grey skies of coastal northern France, which not only recalls Witnesses but also any number of Nordic dramas you care to name. And it strives so hard to dig deeper into characters and their complex lives – like Scandinavian crime dramas do – it often over eggs the risgrynsgöt. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this series is only three episodes and because of this length you’d expect things to rattle along and suspects to be processed with speed and efficiency. But instead Match Day takes its time, keeps dialogue to an absolute minimum and relies on the jaw-droppingly beautiful cast (everyone from Davis, Ross, Meurisse, Chobli and Yorick’s brother, RC Arcanville star player and Alex’s lover Nico (Nicolas Cazalé) is just so bloody attractive) to pout and wistfully gaze into the windswept middle distance.
You can see where Match Day takes its inspiration from and it does keep the football to an absolute minimum, which is reassuring. Instead it attempts to deal with small-town life, what it’s like to live it and the desperate need to escape it. Alex has managed to do this, but her return is met with suspicion both from Jessica and Mathilde, who both feel threatened by her re-emergence, for different reasons. As Alex says to Alan, who’s also desperate to leave his own small-town life as a quasi-rent boy behind: “This isn’t a life sentence.”
So Match Day, then. A few plot holes, a few clumsy tie ups and sometimes very slow going, but it’s always interesting, always considered and more of an intriguing family drama than a rip-snorting police procedural. A lot to like.