The Promise (La promesse, France 2020)

The pine forest of Les Landes

The Promise is a six part TV crime fiction serial that was successful in its home territory (the best TV drama launch since 2015) and has recently completed its run on BBC4 in the UK. It will stay on BBC iPlayer for an indeterminate period. This serial is in many ways quite familiar and at least two of my colleagues abandoned watching it because they thought the concepts were becoming hackneyed. I can see this but there are enough original elements to make it an interesting watch for me.

The serial also comes with a pedigree, boasting as ‘creator’ and co-writer of all six episodes, Anne Landois (one of the principal writers of the last four Engrenages (Spiral) serials). One of its attractions is the setting in South Western France in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. ‘Les Landes’ is the coastal region south of Bordeaux, most of which is dominated by an extensive pine forest that extends to the coast. Although one of the largest French départements, Landes is relatively under-populated and isolated with a few small towns. Forestry is the major primary resource and source of employment. Visually distinctive, the forest also provides the perfect environment in which to disappear.

The storm at Christmas 1999

During Christmas 1999, a fierce storm causes damage and some confusion in which an 11 year-old girl goes missing. Local detective Pierre Castaing (Olivier Marchal, a well-known actor in French film and TV – and a former police officer) takes charge of the search. His two young daughters are close to him as the search extends. Castaing begins to suspect a man, but his colleagues arrest a younger man. The girl is not found and after a year Castaing loses control of the case and is ostracised by his colleagues. The case has had a devastating on Castaing and his marriage is breaking up. Twenty years later, Castaing’s older daughter Sarah (Sofia Essaïdi) is working as a team leader in the ‘Juvenile Unit’ of the local police in Bordeaux. She is alerted to a kidnapping of a young girl in an outer suburb of Bordeaux. Eventually she will find the girl in the woods some way south of the city, but the kidnapper is not around. His trail will take her down to a village near Bayonne, 185 km away. This is her home territory, reviving memories of her father’s case all those years ago. (Bayonne is actually just outside the Landes départment and IMDb lists the shoot as being around Dax.)

Pierre Castaing

Sarah Castaing

The first episode is bewildering in the way that the transitions between 1999 and 2019 are not marked in any way. I think of myself as a ‘visually literate’ person but I missed many of the markers of different time periods. Pierre Castaing drives a Range Rover but in a rural area these are more common and could be twenty years old. White vans for the kidnapper are not particularly distinctive. Rural areas are often ‘behind’ the big city in fashions. At the end of the episode I was baffled but intrigued. I assumed I would make sense of the narrative in the next few episodes but the time shifting continues throughout the serial, weaving Sarah’s story around the flashbacks to Pierre’s. The viewer is likely to forget the ordering of the different time segments. At one point a wipe is used in such a way that father’s head is replaced by his daughter’s twenty years later within the same shot. It’s rare to find a serial in which the viewer has to work so hard to re-construct a linear narrative.

Sarah with Jérôme, her father’s junior some twenty years earlier

It is likely that many viewers in the UK gave up after this first episode as, alongside the time-shifts, it does feel like we have been here often before. An 11 year-old girl seemingly kidnapped by an older man, a police detective with a collapsing marriage, a younger police captain with her own personal issues etc. All of these have become conventions but I think there are sufficient different elements to make this a narrative that repays the extra work for the viewer. However, there are a couple of serious flaws. The most glaring is that Sarah manages to stay in Bayonne to pursue her investigations without, as far as I can see, any official request that she return to Bordeaux where she has an important role. Her behaviour, mirroring her father’s, affects her relationships with the local police. A second flaw is the handling of Sarah’s romance/relationship with a lawyer in Bordeaux. He seems like more of an afterthought or perhaps he simply represents the big city which seems irrelevant in the Landes?

Sarah’s two team members from Bordeaux, Séverine  and Romain

Sarah visits her sister in gaol

This isn’t, in the end, a ‘procedural’ like most of the crime fiction dramas featuring female detectives. It does present a detailed family melodrama set in a small community with the local landscape playing a crucial role. The setting actually begins to move the tone or ‘feel’ of the narrative towards both rural horror and the ‘uncanny’ – only marginally and not as much as some other French serials such as Witnesses (2014 – ). The cinematography by Benjamin Louet, presented in a 2:1 ratio with many drone shots and overheads adds to the genre feel of horror/mystery. The six episodes are each 52-53 minutes and less time than usual is spent on re-capping at the start of each episode, so this is a ‘300 minute plus’ narrative.

Anne Landois’ co-creator and co-writer on the serial is Gaëlle Bellan, who wrote episodes for Engrenages 6. All six episodes of La promesse were directed by Laure de Butler. It does seem that, just as in the UK, more TV drama is now appearing from creative teams led by women. There are a host of female characters in this serial but some of the key characters such as Sarah’s sister and her mother seem to be under-developed. As the image above suggests, the sister Lilas, spends time in prison. The younger women in the cast are played by two actors to cover the twenty year development. The two sisters are well cast as teenagers and adults. Sarah’s mother is played by the same actor who changes the most in physical appearance and demeanour, but without playing a significant role in the narrative development. I’m left wondering, how long must a long narrative be to cover all its possible stories and characters? I’ve deliberately not mentioned aspects of the plot of this serial but I would be interested to watch it again – and to visit the Landes.

Here’s a brief ‘Bande annonce’ for episodes 3 and 4

4 comments

  1. john David hall

    I did enjoy The Promise but, like yourself, would have been hopelessly confused without having read the synopsis which detailed the twenty year hiatus. I was still confused but not hopelessly and was happy to stay with it until the end, even though that did introduce a development out of left field that I don’t think anyone was expecting. It was an unconventional narrative in several ways. Sofia Essaidi was great though. Not sure I have seen her before.

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    • Roy Stafford

      I agree that Sofia Essaïdi has presence. I think she has only been in one film released in the UK – the Fred Cavaye thriller Mea Culpa (France 2014). She has however already had a career as a singer and a dancer on French TV and appears to be a celebrity figure as well as an actor in several TV series.

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  2. christinegeraghty

    I did go back to this and agree about the interest and complexity of the double narrative though messing about with time lines is now a major feature of tv series. I still find the incompetence and lack of professionalism of the major figures really annoying. And that father/daughter relationship was shown to be problematic but also endorsed.

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    • Roy Stafford

      It’s not so much that the time lines are messed about with but that the transitions are not signalled in any way and seem to get even more seamless as the narrative progresses.

      I agree about the lack of professionalism (and the fact that Sarah doesn’t seem to be managed). This is a flaw for for me but I think it is something that gets lost as the genre mix moves towards a personal story in a form of melodrama. I note your comment about the father/daughter relationship as ‘problematic’ but can you spell out what you mean since you imply that it is ‘inappropriate’ in some way and that the filmmakers endorse this? Certainly the daughters seem to gravitate towards their father and their mother is neglected.

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