As part of an elite unit of French police, Julie Susini (Maïwenn) and her team are hot on the trail of a gang of bank robbers who use the tunnels under Paris’s streets to get away from their heists. But just when it seems Julie’s tracked them down, she vanishes without trace. All signs point to her being lost underground - and that’s a problem, because under Paris is no ordinary system of sewers and basements. Down below the streets and subways lies the Catacombs, a system of over three hundred kilometres of tunnels, tombs and caverns dating back centuries.
Taking the lead in the search for Julie is her mother, retired cop Catherine (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me if You Can, It’s Only the End of the World), who teams up with her daughter’s police force partner Raphael (Malik Zidi) to head underground. She’s facing a mother’s worst nightmare, and it’s taking place in a nightmare location; bad enough to have your daughter lost, but lost in a dark and endless maze under the earth? A maze filled with the remains of the dead?
Extensive tunnel systems aren’t exactly rare, and plenty of cities have sewers dating back centuries. Paris is different. Even before the Catacombs were established, the ground under Paris was riddled with tunnels dug by workers carving out limestone blocks to build the city – so much so that by the middle of the 18th century the weight of the city above threatened to cause it to collapse into the caverns below.
To make matters worse, Paris was also struggling to deal with an excess of corpses. With around six million bodies buried in the growing city’s numerous cemeteries – and hygiene not exactly being an exact science at the time – the dead threatened to drive out the living by their stench alone. The city fathers maybe could have ignored it if it had been confined to the poorer areas of town, but with the main food market of Les Halles surrounded by the stinking dead, public safety demanded action. The solution? Move the dead into the catacombs.
Over the next century Paris’ dead were relocated on mass, with all the proper religious rites to ensure their spirits would remain undisturbed. Initially it was a straightforward reburial project, but when Napoleon rose to power he decided the Paris catacombs should rival Rome’s as a monument for the ages, and so teams went back down to re-arrange the bones and skulls into more visually pleasing – and more creepy – forms. Walls were lined with longer bones like tibias and femurs (and occasional skulls), while larger decorations were formed by stacking bones into huge piles.
No wonder then that the catacombs are the real star of this tense and often chilling series. It’s a creepy, unsettling but also strangely beautiful setting, with massive patterns formed by countless human bones. And if you’re not good in confined spaces, there are some moments here you may want to look away from.
Initially large stretches of the catacombs were open to the public, featuring a range of attractions (including intricate carvings, exhibitions of the various minerals found during the excavations, and a goldfish pond) alongside the endless bones and skulls. Some of the skulls were souvenired by visitors, and workers stopped replacing them decades ago: when visitors now see a gap in the rows of skulls, it’s most likely because someone decided to take a skull home.
But much of the tunnel system was closed to the public in 1955, and these days only a small stretch remains open to visitors. Which is probably a good thing: with an ambient temperature of around 15 degrees centigrade, hanging around the narrow dank corridors isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
That’s not to say people don’t sneak down to the sealed-off segments: rumour has it schoolchildren and party-goers often visit via secret entrances. Yes, parties have been a regular feature of the catacombs for well over a century – and not everyone comes up alive. Getting lost down there is no laughing matter either. In 2017 two teenagers were lost down there for three days before they were found by search teams using rescue dogs.
In Nox, both Catherine and Raphael have their own, very human issues to deal with as they search for Julie: Catherine is a hard-hearted ex-cop (her career ended in an act of insubordination) who never showed much warmth to her daughter: Raphael is full of guilt that he let this happen to his partner. And yet there are times when their concerns are dwarfed by their location; whether they manage to find Julia or not, the dead lining the catacombs will outlast them all.
Nox is streaming now at SBS On Demand: