Review: Spin (Les hommes de l’ombre) 1×1-1×2 (France: France2; UK: More4)

A good French show not from Canal+

In the UK: Fridays, 9pm, More4. Also available on Walter Presents
In France: Aired on France 2, 2012-2014

To the rest of the world, it can sometimes seem like the only TV channel in France that makes scripted French-language television is Canal+. Take your pick of shows – Engrenages (Spiral), The Last Panthers, Les Revenants, Braquo, The Tunnel – if it’s at least partly in French, it’s going to be from Canal+.

TF1? That only makes English language shows, like Crossing Lines, Jo and Taxi Brooklyn, surely?

This, of course, is not the case. TF1 makes plenty of French-language shows – TMINE’s pal Monsieur Thierry Attard will point you in their direction in both English and French, if you’re so inclined. There are also plenty of other French TV channels out there making TV in French. It’s just we’ve never really bothered importing it until now.

But having poached all its formats back in the 80s when it was just starting up and now newly awakened to its ratings potential thanks to the success of Les Revenants, Channel 4 is once again looking at French TV as a potential way to fill up the airwaves – as well as the Internet, thanks to Walter Presents. And since everyone, even BBC Four, has been a bit lax at airing anything French for the past 30 years or so, that means Channel 4 is free to pick its way through all of French TV’s archives for the cream of the crop.

So, firstly, we have to thank Walter. Les hommes de l’ombre first aired on pubcaster France 2 nearly four years ago. But despite popping up at 2013’s Totally Serialized (you could have won tickets to see it, thanks to this ‘ere blog, in fact) and featuring the Only Handsome French Actor Everyone Knows About, Grégory Fitoussi (Engrenages, American Odyssey, Mr Selfridge, World War Z, GI Joe), no one bothered with it until Walter picked it for his web site. 

And it’s a good choice. Despite its misleadingly translated English title of Spin, it’s actually quite a hard hitting political thriller looking at public perceptions, PR, deception by the state, and modern political campaigns. It stars Bruno Wolkowitch (The Tourist) as Simon Kapita, an old-school political operator of integrity, headhunted by the UN to head up one of its commissions. However, on a quick trip back to his homeland, the man he helped to become President of France is killed by a suicide bomber of Algerian descent, so everyone naturally assumes he was a terrorist. The President of the Senate (Philippe Magnan) takes over and starts to clamp down on security, but Kapita soons discovers that Magnan is hiding the bomber’s true motivation for political advantage – he wants to become the new President. 

That’s the plot for episode one. However, wisely for once, More4 aired the first two episodes on Friday, and it’s a bit misleading for me to leave things there since although that deadly secret does remain an important plot point, the show moves on. It’s then about Kapita first selecting a potential alternative candidate (Nathalie Baye), persuading her to run for office and then managing her campaign. Equally important is the fact that Kapita’s protégé, the ambitious and trendy young Ludovic Desmeuze (Fitoussi), throws aside his integrity to run Magnan’s campaign, pitting the two former friends against each other in an escalating political war.

Although comparisons to Borgen are obvious, the show is its own beast, having as much in common with that Danish show as it does with The West Wing, with Kapita’s assembling of his political team reminiscent of that show’s In The Shadow of Two Gunmen and he being almost as inspirational as Josiah Bartlett in his own, French way. 

But it’s really a much darker show than both of them. I said Spin was a mistranslation and its French title gives you a better idea of the kind of show it is: Les hommes de l’ombre. As well as being a nice bit of aural word play, this means roughly both ‘the men in the shadows’ and ‘the men behind the scenes’, and indeed, the show is very much about Wolkowitch and Fitoussi as the hidden kingmakers*, working the cogs of democracy, unseen in the shadows, alongside governmental subterfuge.

It’s also very good. While it doesn’t have the gritty realism of Engrenages – or the industrial strength Parisian swearing – it’s got a strong plot, interesting, albeit relatively conventional characters and situations, and some top acting. Although the female characters don’t come out of it very well, they do at least get lots of things to do and the political machinations that we see do have a strong stench of reality to them. Despite the lack of black characters, the show also subtly flags up public racism and islamophobia – a far more topical issue now than it was back in 2012, of course.

Unfortunately, the show’s somewhat let down by its English subtitling. The French dialogue is subtle, nuanced and economical; the subtitles are not. While they usually get most of the plot across, they often change the meaning of what’s been said in significant ways (such as changing certain characters’ perceptions of different political groups and leanings), and somewhat bizarrely do so even when a literal word-for-word translation would have been both more accurate and even better written. 

So take it from me – if the dialogue seems bad, it probably isn’t in French.  

Well done then, Walter. Good choice. Just hire a better translator next time.

* Yes, France is a republic and Wolkowitch wants to get a woman elected. You know what I mean

  • JustStark

    Oh dear — I was on the point of thinking, 'I must watch that' up until your warning about the dialogue. I can't abide bad dialogue (and my French is resolutely GCSE-level). I shall have to give it some thought. Maybe give it a try and see how bad it really is.

  • It varies between fine and plain old “what?” in terms of translation. Episode three had the translators having to deal with a campaign slogan of 'La France a besoin d'un nouveau Visage'. Now that's slightly tricky to translate into English because it's a pun on the candidate's surname (Visage), which also means face (“France needs a new face/Visage”). So they translated it as… “France needs a revival.”


    But then they do quite simple things oddly, too. So when an important witness is 'disappeared' by the government and someone asks where he is, the conspirator says 'loin' – ie far away – because he's been deported to Mali. But the subtitles say 'Gone', which is either a mistranslation or an attempt to do action cinema English, but which still doesn't work because he's not undergone 'extreme rendition' or anything.

    The subtitles are competent enough that the story is understandable and you've a reasonably good idea of what's going on. So it's not that you'll be scratching your head.

    But even putting the general difficulties of translation for subtitling to one side, they make some odd and actually misleading choices that really squish out any subtlety and sometimes suggest a character has different or odd opinions that they actually have.

  • JustStark

    So they translated it as… “France needs a revival.”

    While I appreciate those types of puns are very difficult to translate, in this case it's particulalry bizarre given that 'visage' is also an English word meaning 'face'.

    The subtitles are competent enough that the story is understandable

    I don't usually watch things just for the story, though; if I wanted to know 'what happens' I'd just read a summary. Dialogue is one of the things I'm most interested in. That and themes / ideas.

    That said, it's a problem with all translations, whether films, plays, novels, or whatever, so I suppose as long as the ideas get conveyed that's the best that can be asked for. Either that or I refuse to read anything that wasn't written in English and that seems like cutting my nose off to spite my face (though in the case of Milan Kundera I don't think I'd be missing that much).

  • re: visage. True. I'm not sure you'd ever use it in an advertising campaign in that way, though, even if your candidate was called Visage, since its usage is uncommon enough you don't really get a double entendre: “France needs a new visage.”

    It's a bit more complicated than that, too, since it's supposed to be a bad slogan but still the kind of slogan that an ad firm might come up with. 'La France a besoin d'un noveau visage' is just good enough an ad firm might come up with it, but in the French dialogue, Our Hero knocks it down for being too trite. “France needs a revival”, on the other hand, can only get knocked down for being awful, so Our Hero doesn't benefit as a character from rejecting it in the English version – he just looks like he's got a pulse.

    Of course, then the campaign goes with 'Ensemble', so it's not like anyone's winning any points at the end of the day…

  • JustStark

    since its usage is uncommon enough you don't really get a double entendre: “France needs a new visage.”

    But how about, say, 'Visage: a new Face for France'?

  • Oh yes. Much better. They should definitely hire you to help rewrite the subtitles

  • Rosemary Brocklehurst

    I thought this was D -minus and not an A* as I had hoped from the hype in terms of political nouse. It was pretty poor on all fronts including plot and script and characterisationand frustratingly so. The plot was thin and ridiculously implausible The characters walked around taking themselves oh so seriously. There wasn't one who was convincing either as a politician or spin doctor. Really unimpressive. (I used to be a spin doctor for a political party).

  • JustStark

    Oh good, now it's definitely off the list of things to watch.

  • Hi Rosemary, thanks for dropping by. Yes, I thought it started well, but by the time it got round to the actual campaign, not only did it start to get a lot stupider but it revealed that it didn't actually know much about spin – it completely glossed over pretty much the entire campaign and what we did see wasn't that smart. Criminal under-use of Grégory Fitoussi, too, and it ended up becoming standard French “older guy whom every woman fancies, no matter how young she is” drama. I gave up at the fifth episode: http://www.the-medium-is-not-e

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