We had a bureau at my parents house. It was an old, wooden, very formal piece of furniture in the dining room (next to the deer head mounted on the wall. I’m not even kidding). They used to keep bills and receipts in the drawer and the posh wine glasses in the top. I’m not sure I knew it was a French word, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never pronounced it correctly in my whole life. The Bureau in this instance is just as smart and formal,but thankfully not so wooden. This is the secret office responsible for deep undercover agents within the French secret service. We meet the agents in a time of transition and confusion.
Rashid (codename Cyclone) is a French Muslim spy operating in Algeria. He refused to drink alcohol in training even though it’s clearly important to know if your operatives can take interrogation while drunk (“I love you, you’re my besssht friend! Guess what I do for a living!”). So it’s shocking that he’s arrested for drunk driving while on an operation.
While Rashid is getting grief in Africa, Guillaume Debailly aka Malotru is getting one last goodbye shag in Syria. He’s been summoned back to HQ in Paris, so has to leave behind his identity as a mild-mannered university lecturer and his beautiful girlfriend Nadia. Malotru is welcomed back by the boss Henri Duflot with open arms. They expect great things of him. But he’s also watched very closely on his return. A whole elaborate security detail is on his tail (the only guys in this who look thuggish), apparently for his own protection. It sees spies mainly love to spy on each other.
Don’t come to The Bureau expecting high-octane James Bond-style action. So far there have been zero explosions, shoot-outs or off-colour quips to camera after killing bad guys. Paris HQ is a very orderly office, quite calm and even dull. There’s no panic or shouting here, even when the deputy director is fired over fudging Cyclone’s original training. These people are the epitome of professional; smart, intelligent and in an office environment where you wear your ID at all times. There’s no slacking off or dress-down Fridays here, and I’m pretty sure mucking about on Facebook is punishable as treason against the state.
This series is based upon real accounts by former spies. Our characters are real people and these are their everyday lives. Malotru has been away from home for six years. We see how the job has affected his relationship with daughter (he’s also divorced from her Mum). She’s pretty much grown up without him, and there’s sadness for the lost years on both sides. She isn’t the only young woman for him to worry about. As well as being picked for the deputy director role, Malotru is taking on a pretty young protégé called Marina Loiseau who seems far too nice to do this job. He’s going to be a tough teacher. Even when she thinks she’s doing it right it’s wrong.
Ironically of course, the great Malotru is a con artist, kidding everyone and himself. He’s teaching Marina about keeping proper distance from subjects while he’s still dangerously close to Nadia who has followed him from Syria. And worse still he’s lying to his colleagues by keeping an ID card that’s one of his old Middle Eastern identities which should have been turned in the moment he set foot in France. This isn’t just an affair – he seems to really love her. He’s so worried about her when he thinks she’s been caught up in a Damascus university bombing. He’s terrified of losing her, but also having nightmares about her uncovering his true identity.
Henri clearly thinks Malotru has lots of time on his hands. Along with all his other jobs, and his secret affair, he’s tipped to head up the Cyclone storm. Rashid is officially a lost agent – has he been abducted or turned traitor? Because of his mysterious disappearance Algeria is completely compromised, and has knock on effects on many different agents, all deep undercover in potentially dangerous situations. One of them is someone from Henri’s own family.
I love Henri and his silly animal print ties. His office-wear makes him look all the more like a cheerful but fairly dull middle manager. And that’s exactly what this restrained drama sets out to show us. Spying is about remaining unnoticed and building relationships with dodgy people that will ultimately benefit France. There are no chases, no explosions no silly stuff that’s the hallmark of Homeland and loads of other American tv shows. Turns out even if James Bond made it through the training process he’d be fired on day one. There’s a little bit of tension and insecurity due to Cyclone and the Algerian operations, but still no panic, not yet anyway. This is high quality French drama that never forgets for a moment it’s based squarely in reality.
THE BUREAU is released on DVD on Monday 16th January by Arrow Films.
Or try it now on Amazon Prime.