This French series – called Disparue in its native France – has attracted some big viewers in its home country, and some have even called it ‘the French Broadchurch’. It was inspired by Spanish series Desparecida, and has an-female production, writing and direction team, which gives it flavour and an interesting edge behind the camera. It only remained to be seen whether it matched the hype onscreen.
To start with, we see a fairly normal family scene – a mother and teenage daughter, getting ready to go out to the city’s music festival and celebrate her birthday, share clothes and bickering. The mother – Florence (Alix Poisson) – notices that her daughter Lea (Camille Razat) has a small tattoo behind her ear and scolds her for it. Lea storms out of the room, complaining that her mother is ‘so annoying’. So far, so typical.
The last time we see Lea, she’s told by her mother to be home by 3am and to be ready for her family birthday meal by 1pm. As if to accentuate the fact Flo will never see her daughter again, there’s a longing, portentous slo-mo shot as Lea turns around to smile at her mother as she leaves the house.
It is indeed the last she’ll see Lea. Whether for good we do not know yet, but the next day, when she doesn’t emerge from the festival, first Florence and then her restaurateur father, Julien (Pierre-Francoise Martin-Laval), start to feel the panic – Flo first, then Julien. Flo chides her eldest, Thomas (Maxime Taffanel), for not bringing back her daughter (he chaperoned her to the festival but peeled off soon afterwards), and the first signs of cracks begin to emerge.
Not in any insidious way, but the way a family deals with the disappearance of their own. As they try to make sense of the situation, fingers are pointed at each other and blame is sought to be apportioned. Flo has a go at Julien because she feels he’s too relaxed about the situation, Thomas is always snubbed.
We’ve seen this kind of behaviour before in BBC1’s The Missing from last year, and things were panning out in more or less the same way here. A family first of all takes on the weight of the search because they feel they’ve denigrated their basic function as protectors – they feel the burden of guilt almost on a crushing level, and want to right the wrong themselves because they feel they’re to blame.
Unlike The Missing – where a young child was taken – The Disappearance is all about a teenager, and we all know what teenagers are like. They keep secrets and as they lurch into adulthood they involve themselves in seriously adult things. And so Lea’s clandestine life started to show itself. From her sex life (she had a boyfriend Flo and Julien didn’t know about) and drug use (Julien found wraps of cocaine in one of her private boxes) and her burgeoning career as a racing driver (slightly random that one), Flo and Julien’s search for their daughter was as much about finding about who she really was as it was as actually finding her in physical form.
On the police side of things, investigating the case was the sullen, grumpy Bertrand Molina (Francios-Xavier Demaison) who had just moved into the Lyon area and was obviously down in the dumps about something. Whereas say Tchéky Karyo’s Baptiste in The Missing had lived a life, was grizzled and had a voice like an emery board, Molina was much younger, much cleaner cut and, weirdly, much less believable as the tormented cop. Molina’s much more straightforward partner Camille Guérin (Alice Pol) was much more refreshing – she was always eating junk food (burgers, pizza) and was matter-of-fact in her interactions with both suspects and interviewees. I think I might grow to like her very much.
There were other characters, too – Lea’s best mate Chris, her father and Lea’s uncle Jean, goddaughter Sophie, and all of them were being set up as possible suspects down the line. And, sure enough, layers of story and secrets were peeled away. Like The Missing, too, Julien, the father, was arrested for discrepancies in his statement and was revealed to have had an affair; Thomas and his girlfriend lied about their whereabouts on the night of Lea’s disappearance; Chris and Lea’s boyfriend Romain had slept together; Jean had been involved in a fatal car accident… all these things came out in the wash.
We left Julien and Flo clinging to hope when they received a late-night phone call from Lea, no doubt giving their search an even more frantic edge in episodes to come.
Even though there were lots of familiar aspects within The Disappearance, the where-is-she, whodunit nature of the story reeled me in pretty quickly, while the city of Lyon gave the whole thing a nice sense of place, while the characters were interesting enough. And the way it was structured was by-the-numbers but also designed to keep us watching – all the emotional hooks and structural beats were present and correct.
You can see why it gripped so many people in its native France.