A French Village starts off on June 12, 1940, with a premiere that includes a German fighter plane shooting at children on a school trip. The scene is suspenseful but also staged with deliberate restraint, like a dream slowly turning into a nightmare before anybody quite realizes it. The series that follows sticks to that matter-of-fact, almost detached tone. Life in the fictional Villeneuve, a village in occupied France about 60 miles from Switzerland, is irreversibly upended by German rule but still retains a routine element.
The pitch for A French Village could fit on half a napkin: Each season covers roughly one year of the occupation of Villeneuve in World War II. The import series born from that idea is stellar, though, and its first four seasons are now available to purchase for streaming on Amazon. (The seventh and by all accounts final one, an epilogue dealing with the post-Liberation aftermath, just finished airing in France.) And while the show’s subject may feel remote to 2016 Americans, it’s hard not to be struck by the stakes: How do you go on when your way of life is under attack by an uncontrollable force?
The weirdest thing about period dramas is that few of the people who make them actually care about the period. On Poldark, Rome or Boardwalk Empire, over-plotting and nonstop adventure take precedence over the historical setting itself. Once more into the breeches, but to what end? Not so with A French Village, where the forces of history largely control the plot, creating a feeling of powerlessness that will be familiar to many in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. It’s not a very American perspective (here we prefer to believe in the power of individuals to forge their destinies), but it might be a more realistic one.
When the show debuted in France, back in 2009, producer Emmanuel Daucé said its subject was “the 95 percent of French people who were neither Resistance nor collaborators.” As a result, A French Village isn’t so much about saints and sinners, heroes and villains. Rather, it’s about the fabric of community.
The creators’ concern with realism (historical consultant Jean-Pierre Azéma is one of France’s foremost experts on life during the Occupation) translates into a steady scrutiny of the muddy, compromised silent majority, an examination of how living under enemy rule affects character as much as characters.
The series’ building blocks are the citizens of Villeneuve — the people who make up any ordinary city: a teacher and her principal; the town doctor, who also happens to be the mayor; a wily businessman; the police chief; a farmer’s wife. Co-creator, showrunner and main writer Frédéric Krivine asks us to consider how they live together and how they reach decisions. The key questions are never spelled out explicitly yet weigh on every plot development. Never mind dramatic events such as being tortured for information — what are these people going to do when, say, a Nazi oh-so-nicely asks for a bottle of wine? What would you have done? It’s easy to preach resistance in hindsight, but during the war, going along with the Germans could mean saving lives, at least in the short term.
Nobody knows this better than the doctor/mayor, Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci). He clearly means well and shows signs of bravery, as when he offers himself in exchange for French hostages held by the Germans. But he also placates the occupiers in an attempt to make things easier for the townspeople, and — to use a currently familiar expression — tries to normalize the situation.
Or take Raymond Schwartz (Thierry Godard, also on the terrific French cop show Spiral), who does business with the Wehrmacht. A pure collaborator, right? But he also helps out his lover, Marie (Nade Dieu), an early member of the Resistance, and stands up to his scheming, anti-Semitic wife, Jeannine (Emmanuelle Bach) — one of the most unambiguously villainous characters in a show concerned with nuance.
As for resistance, it’s not glorified. When a communist group tries to kill a German officer in season 2, its members bicker self-destructively (again: so familiar!) and spend almost an entire episode just trying to steal a gun. But why would it be otherwise? These people aren’t trained operatives, have no experience in mission planning, and several are process-obsessed ideologues who will later argue with competing resistance groups. Plus ça change…
(Speaking of season two, be warned that Amazon’s numbering of episodes is an epic mess. To assemble that season’s correct order on Amazon, you need to look up the French season 3 online.)
The tight focus on Villeneuve means that the war is both distant and close. There are no major battle scenes, and the Germans are quickly integrated into the village, resented by some and embraced by others. A few citizens go beyond the call of duty. Neglected by her husband, Dr. Larcher’s wife, Hortense (Audrey Fleurot, another Spiral alum), has an affair with a ruthless SS man (Richard Sammel). Jeannine Schwartz writes anonymous letters. For them, this is the new normal.
Cases like these do show that people are not entirely puppets controlled by destiny. The two women act of their own free will, after all, just like mail carrier Suzanne (Constance Dollé) opts to join the Resistance. The series succeeds as television and as history because it always shows the forces and moral conflicts shaping these individual choices. Without catering to cynicism, it also underlines the discrepancy between intentions and outcomes. It’s not the most feel-good lesson, but right now, it sure hits close to home.