• 'The Bureau': a French antidote to 'Homeland'. (SBS)Source: SBS
It's the French answer to Homeland, but with more subtlety and less cry face.
By
Sandra Beeston

20 Sep 2017 - 5:08 PM  UPDATED 29 Jun 2021 - 11:21 AM

Discover one of the best series to come out of France in the past few years. Often described as the French answer to Homeland, but with more subtlety and less cry face, The Bureau offers an inside view of the DGSE, the French external security agency. It focuses in particular on the department in charge of training agents and creating their fake identities (their “legends”) when they go undercover.

Like a fine French wine, The Bureau gets even better with time, with its complex characters and cleverly layered storylines developing nicely during its five seasons, all of which are available on SBS On Demand. We give you five reasons why you should binge on it without further delay.

 

France’s best example of prestige TV

The Bureau is one of the first French series to adopt the showrunner structure used to produce the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. At the helm of The Bureau is Éric Rochant, who, by overseeing every aspect of the series, ensured his vision is respected from the writing room to the editing suite. Fascinated by the spy world, Rochant had already explored the subject in 1994 with the Cannes-nominated The Patriots, a film about the Mossad, which has since been used by the DGSE as a training tool for their agents. He later directed Möbius, starring Jean Dujardin and Cécile de France as two agents falling dangerously in love.

Rochant’s knowledge of the milieu and cinematic background, coupled with a prestigious cast including Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Pierre Darroussin, has proved a successful combination. Now in its third season, with a fourth already in the works, The Bureau remains pay TV channel Canal Plus’s best performing series since The Returned, garnering rave reviews from French and international critics alike, with The New York Times describing it as a "moody, cynical and stylish”.

 

You feel like you’re watching the real thing

Not unlike Homeland, the plot echoes world events like the war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of ISIS, which are all-too-real and scary propositions. But the comparison with other spy fare ends here. Don’t go in expecting big explosions, car chases and sophisticated gadgets – everything about The Bureau is restrained, even normal, which is what makes it particularly believable. These spies are not buff or glamorous – they look like you could have crossed paths with them on your way to buy your daily croissant without ever noticing them.

The show writers were also granted exceptional permission by the DGSE to meet with real spies, incorporating their stories in the plot, and to visit their offices in order to replicate the decors as closely as possible. The result was so authentic that the DGSE gave the show its stamp of approval. The private screening of the first episodes in front of hundreds of their secret service agents even elicited a standing ovation. Mission accomplished.

 

Mathieu Kassovitz in fine form

It’s fair to say Kassovitz has not been very lucky with his directing efforts since his cult classic La Haine (Remember Gothika? Exactly). For a time, the rebellious Frenchman seemed to make more headlines with his angry tirades than his work, the most famous one being “F*** French cinema, go f*** yourselves with your sh***y films!”

But ever since he stole Audrey Tautou’s heart (and ours) in Amelie, he’s forged a great career for himself in front of the camera, and has worked with acclaimed directors like Steven Spielberg (you might have heard of him) and Michael Haneke. In The Bureau, the character of conflicted agent Malotru, who struggles to leave his “legend” behind after six years undercover in Syria, is easily one of his finest performances to date.

 

A great female character you will root for

Up-and-coming actress Sara Giraudeau (who you might recognise from last year's feelgood flick Rosalie Blum) is fantastic here as Marina Loiseau, a young and brilliant spy rookie being trained by Malotru to go undercover. Giraudeau has that quintessential girl-next-door look that will make you want to become her best friend and is therefore very easy to empathise with. You'll soon find yourself holding your breath as she is placed in impossible situations.

In the first episode, she joins Malotru for lunch at a restaurant. Out of the blue, he asks her to obtain information on a random patron in less than 10 minutes. As it turns out, that's a real training technique for new DGSE recruits. After a brief hesitation, her puppy face switches into full steely professional mode, giving us a glimpse of the potential her character has to offer – and it’s fascinating to watch.

 

Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s face (and cravats)

French cinema mainstay and much-loved actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who you can currently watch in Aki Kaurismäki’s underrated gem Le Havre on SBS On Demand, is simply great as Duflot, the unflappable director of the Bureau. He can joke about his ridiculous cravats one minute and defuse a major crisis in Syria the next. Look at his warm, congenial French face (here in Conversations with My Gardener, also streaming on SBS On Demand). But make no mistake, Darroussin’s character in The Bureau has many facets, and the upcoming seasons will show there’s a darker side to Duflot than meets the eye as he is faced with the task of eliminating traitors within his team.

Do yourself a favour and join the ranks of The Bureau fans. We have it on good authority you’ll become addicted in no time.

 

The Bureau is streaming now at SBS On Demand:

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