Next in our series of Summer Boxset review, we’re off to France for a complex murder mystery.
What’s the story?
In a scene quite reminiscent of the opening shots from season one of The Killing, we are witness to a distraught teenage girl being chased by an unseen perpetrator through dense woods at night. The disappearance of Jennifer Lenoir is the grim catalyst that uncovers many of the dark secrets that haunt the nearby French village of Montfaucon, and which will ultimately solve a complex mystery that lingers deep in it’s past.
Lenoir’s disappearance coincides with the arrival of a new police captain, Gaspard Decker. His no-nonsense approach to police work immediately puts him at odds with the villagers, especially local mum and his new Lieutenant Virgine Musso, who has kept the peace in the area for years by herself with a softer style of law enforcement.
When Jennifer’s body is discovered at the tail end of the first episode, all hell breaks loose and what ensues is a classic closed-cast whodunnit as the audience is run ragged between multiple suspects, false leads and cliffhangers until it’s eventual shocking denouement.
Here’s a trailer to wet your whistle (in French) :
What’s good about it?
La Forêt isn’t here to reinvent the wheel in terms of crime drama, and indeed it has a very nuts and bolts approach to the mechanics of a police procedural which is actually refreshingly good fun – there’s no gimmicks here, just a murder case to be solved, clue by clue. At only six episodes long it’s a short series too, but packs a lot in it’s running time to keep your interest piqued – it can be a bit breathless in places to get between plot points sometimes, but part of its charm is it never overstays its welcome in a situation before barrelling onto the next scene. There’s also a whole host of influences from recent dramas that bear a similar (now oft-repeated) medium of teenagers in peril, something which the French seem to excel at for delivering the dramatic gut-punch that a missing child case surely generates. You’ll definitely be ticking off your mental checklist for some of the more tiresome TV tropes from recent times, but if you can get past the surface here there’s actually a surprisingly solid drama that goes in directions you wouldn’t expect.
The first of those surprises is the key performance of Suzanne Clément as Lieutenant Musso, who initially you feel will be an antagonistic foil to Captain Dekard but soon steps out as the real star of the show. Perennially two steps behind the audience (we find out some fairly unsavoury things about her husband very early on), Clément delivers a proper masterclass of a woman emotionally out of her depth trying to claw back control on the shakiest of grounds. We feel every physical encounter she engages in, every setback and failure – and for the most part it is her performance that drives the show and provides its heart.
Clément’s actual counterpart in the series isn’t Decker but another formidable woman – Eve Mendel (Alexia Barlier). Eve’s story is really at the core of the narrative here, although it’s portrayed as a secondary element. Discovered in the woods by the local kindly doctor when she was a small child, her natural empathy with the forest has a very Jordskott-like feel to it, as she is guided by a white wolf to various key locations related to the case. Barlier plays Mendel with an ethereal touch, a woman fiercely independent of the village’s moralistic gaze and somebody who genuinely sees the good in everybody, regardless of their history.
Intertwined between these two characters is the brave decision to really spend some time with them at their weakest points, which pays off dramatically at the end of the season. Despite it’s short running time in comparison to most crime dramas, La Foret isn’t afraid to drop off the tension and explore how these characters are feeling at that time in the narrative, something which is richly rewarding as a viewer.
What’s bad about it?
Maybe it’s my stuffy British sensibilities, but I couldn’t compute some of the attitudes toward young teenagers and sex in the series. The main victim is noted as being 16 and has an affair with a much older married man, which regardless of the issues around consent is absolutely paedophilic in nature (or at least would be considered so in the UK). Similarly, there is a fairly gruesome sub-plot in which teenage girls auction off their virginity online, and one of the girls involved in this is not only the active instigator of the ruse but voluntarily becomes an underage prostitute as a consequence. I felt this story was never satisfactorily handled or explored properly and bordered on being irresponsible as a result.
Part of the explanation to that might be the running time, which definitely does the show no favours sometimes, despite meaning we get a rollicking ride to the finish line. One of the first things cut at the expense of the duration is credulity – especially in the case of Musso, who would have been off the case due to personal involvement from episode one. In fact, there’s a number of key scenes in which you’ll be pulling your hair out over their believability.
Finally, Decker is supposed to be the focal point of the show but is a cypher at best, and perhaps wisely leaves the acting to the two main female characters. There’s an underlying (and unexplored) plot around him having feelings for Eve but if that’s the case the chemistry between the two actors was virtually zero. Similarly, his back history before being deployed in the village is eluded to but never dug into, presumably something to hold over for a second season – if it comes.
Why it’s worth a binge…
Six episodes is an easy watch for a weekend and it flies by in no time. If you were a fan of The Break, The Disappearance, The Missing, Witnesses, Dark or Jordskott there is something here for you to enjoy.
La Forêt (The Forest) is available now on Netflix