• Charles Berling and Nina Meurisse in 'Frozen Dead'. (SBS)Source: SBS
Baby, it’s cold outside.
Anthony Zwierzchaczewski

23 Aug 2017 - 10:04 AM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2017 - 9:48 AM

Based on the novel of the same name by Bernard Minier, The Frozen Dead follows Captain Martin Servaz (Charles Berling) as he reluctantly returns to investigate a grisly crime in the small village of St Martin, a place he'd hoped to leave well behind. At the same time, a young psychiatrist, Diane Berg (Nina Meurisse), newly arrived to the town's isolated Wargnier Institute, has a strange fascination with one of the inmates – a murderer with a strong connection to Servaz’s past, who may somehow be involved in the strange happenings around St Martin.

Think Twin Peaks, but with the Lynchianism dialled all the way down, and headless horses replacing plastic-wrapped bodies, and you might get a little close to The Frozen Dead. It’s a show where the setting is almost a character in itself, where secrets long buried are being dug up, and it’s a strong contender in France’s push to more internationally focused, prestige television.


Ice, ice baby

Make no mistake, the real star of The Frozen Dead is the landscape. The small towns, isolated power stations and secluded psychiatric facilities throughout the Pyrenees almost spills out of the screen. And a cold dread hangs off the whole production like icicles, from the stone-hearted lead to the creeping anxiety inside the Wargnier Institute, all heightened by their bleak surrounds. It’s sublime and haunting, but tangible in a way that’s unnerving and enveloping. More than television to get lost in, it’s a show you’ll want to watch from under a blanket, hands clutching a warm drink… no matter what the weather's like outside.

French prestige

Along with Section Zero and Contact, The Frozen Dead is part of a move to push French television into the international market – and it shows. Its cinematic direction and camerawork immediately elevates it beyond what you’ve come to expect from European procedurals. The visual cues are clearly intended to evoke US prestige television, and it succeeds effortlessly, while still maintaining a strongly French identity.

The score moves between orchestral flourishes; creeping, John Carpenter-indebted synth and at least one slightly ironic use of a Christmas song. And if you think Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt" couldn’t get more devastating than the Johnny Cash cover, wait until the choral performance over the already slightly unsettling opening credits crawls under your skin. It’s also not afraid to put the brakes on, using the howling winds and eerie silence to disquiet. 

Crime drama meets psychological thriller

Where The Frozen Dead also succeeds in separating from the pack is its mashup of genres. It’s Fargo by way of The Silence of the Lambs, with two seemingly disparate threads - Servaz’s investigation and Diane’s desire to get access to the worst offenders in the psychiatric facility - quickly weaving together. Buried small town secrets and psychological games mix, the scandalous and the terrifying building off each other amid the bleak landscape, managing to tell a story that is both unsettling but strangely human.

It’s a smart approach, too. Left alone, Servaz’s investigation would fall into being yet another procedural, while Diane’s interactions with the institute’s inmates could have easily slipped down the slope into a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling rehash. By stitching together the two genres, The Frozen Dead makes instead for compelling and unnerving viewing. As frightening as it may be, it’s a place you want to visit again and again, and you may just find yourself wanting to return as soon as an episode ends.


The Frozen Dead is streaming now at SBS On Demand:

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