As you may have noticed I’m still waiting on the next big Euro drama to cross my path. All the Scandi stuff recently has me feeling a bit flat, with fairly promising starts leading to confused middles and ‘meh’ endings. It’s fine to have a beautiful backdrop of lakes and mountains, but you need to populate it with original characters leading interesting lives. The story needs to be multi-layered, but not too complicated; zoning out and playing with your phone is the absolute death knell for a subtitled drama. Both the good guys and the bad guys need to have clear motivations that we can relate to.
So with a Gallic shrug it might well be time to bid au revoir to the northernmost corners of Europe and see what France might have to offer; after all, the daddy of the noir resurgence in the past decade has been the Emmy award-winning and much loved Spiral. The most memorable dramas I’ve watched recently have been French, or part French; the balls-out action heros in Braquo, stylish super spies in The Bureau and the best character in Midnight Sun was the deeply troubled French detective.
I absolutely should have watched Witnesses: Frozen Death when it was on BBC4 in November, but it languished on my round-to-it list, so I’m delighted that it’s available to buy on DVD and Blu Ray. This is the second series but fear not, it’s entirely stand-alone. So if you missed series one, which was on Channel 4 a number of years ago, don’t panic. You don’t need to do any revision.
Our lead detective is Lieutenant Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier), dealing with her ex-husband getting a new girlfriend, custody issues for her girls and increasingly argumentative battles with her caustic pre-teen daughter. She may be dealing with mental health issues too, as she cleans the house to within an inch of its life an shouts at her children for any mess. At work her team are dealt an extremely morbid case – fifteen crunchy corpses are found frozen solid on a bus in remote countryside. All the victims are men, dressed in suits and new shoes, who have been missing for around three years. The primary, and only suspect, is Catherine Keemer (Audrey Felurot), a woman who has had relationships with them all. Maybe she’s some sort of evil black widow? She upped and left her husband and daughters three years ago and has been missing ever since. Catherine turns up distraught at a different location with almost total amnesia but remembers quite quickly that she gave birth to a child six months ago. What on earth has happened to these people?
Sandra and Catherine are drawn as quite similar women; in how they look and how they dress, in how they’re afraid of becoming estranged from their daughters. Les enfants are really the crux of the series, and the tragedy of parents separated from their kids runs through most of the main characters. As Sandra and her team investigate they find a similar case with a body in a bus and a woman who gave birth while missing. This woman committed suicide. Catherine steals a baby, and goes on the run but wisely gives herself up. So someone has been kidnapping, raping, stealing babies, murdering and freezing bodies for years. This all sounds extremely horrific, almost as if Mulder and Scully might turn up and blame it on aliens.
Catherine is threatening as she glares at her reunited family across the dinner table, yet also the victim of a terrible crime and frightened about what she might yet remember. Is she duplicitous because of her amnesia or is she keeping secrets like Elias in I Know Who You Are? Her husband thinks she’ll be able to forget all about her lost baby and she glares at the back of his unprotected neck. What a fool. Like that Spanish show, there’s very little of the dark story reflected in the visuals – most scenes are bright and well-lit despite coastal Northern France having more than their fair share of gloomy skies. You don’t need shadows to make a show erie. Sandra does a good job following their precious few leads, and doesn’t flinch when one chilly bus she’s investigating becomes very hot indeed.
It’s very strange to see Google being used normally. Seems the producers actually went to the trouble of paying Google rather than using a fictional one like Finder Spyder or SearchWise.net. Très bien. That sort of things is always jarring and silly, especially if an ostensibly serious drama. Sandra has to rely on a search engine to do the work for her as her team seem to be taking their own sweet time about finding the freezers where the bodies were stored. C’mon guys – you had one job! But I forgive them everything as Sandra’s loveable partner Justin (Jan Hammernecker) climbs into a chest freezer in an electrical store and pulls the flabbergasted shop assistant down on top of him. I hope that’s not chilly foreshadowing for poor Justin.
I like how it quickly becomes clear that Catherine will cooperate with the police and will, if anything, be Sandra’s unofficial partner in this case. They’d have been stuffed if she’d decided to hang on to the kidnapped baby, and the parents wanted to lock her up and throw away the key. It’s very well-paced and intriguing, especially the timeline of the crimes, and how each horror builds on each other. Sandra and Catherine’s characters may well overlap further, as Sandra interviews the local nutters and goes a bit nutty herself – using the same dating app as Catherine, hoping to meet a murderer and collect his dna rather than his phone number. A guy with the same M.O., using the same app, in the same area three years afterwards? I’m with her team on this – that’s not going to work. But maybe she’ll meet Mr Right, or at least Mr Rebound and begin to feel better about herself. She’ll need a chance of a happy ending as this case promises to be gruesome and gripping in the extreme.
Witnesses – Frozen Death and the Season 1 & 2 Box Set are available to buy on DVD and Blu Ray from Monday 15 January.