When a small island suffering from a fishing shortage is hit by a string of murders, a mysterious woman rapidly becomes the focus of blame – but her secret will prove to be far more fantastic.
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22 Oct 2020 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2021 - 11:20 AM

The myth of the mermaid, a seductive siren who lures sailors to their deaths, is a powerful one. A disturbing and often sensual image of temptation, she symbolises an inhuman desire that men (and it is always men) cannot resist. What does this have to do with a small island off the coast of France where the fishing has gone bad and the locals have turned to crime? That’s the mystery at the heart of Apnea.

Welcome to an island where everyone wants to get away

On an isolated island in the Mediterranean, teenager Chloé (Noée Abita) is increasingly bored and frustrated. The island’s fishing industry is struggling, with smuggling an increasingly attractive alternative; it’s clear that for many the future lies elsewhere. At least her best friend Sabine (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) gives her a reason to stick around. They’ve been inseparable since childhood, when Chloé was found in a cave by the beach, an orphan of the sea.

Then one night at a party a boy tries to assault Chloé, only to end up in a coma, as if struck down by some mysterious force. The same night, two fishermen involved in smuggling are lost at sea. When Loïc (Manuel Severi) investigates, he finds a mysterious woman (Laetitia Casta) in the hold of their boat. All she says is that her name is Théa.

It’s a coming of age story

It’s no spoiler to reveal that there’s definitely something supernatural about Théa. Once discovered, she seemingly roams the island at will, turning up wherever she likes – and increasingly, what she likes is Chloé. There’s clearly a connection between this mystery woman and the teenager, and the answers lie in her past. Théa’s arrival presents Chloé with a chance to explore her origins, find out who she really is and, more importantly, where she truly belongs.

And a murder mystery

Captain Bruno Pagani (Sergi Lopez) is a man on a mission. He’s been investigating a string of murders for a long time now, and when he learns Théa has been found on a boat in mysterious circumstances, he thinks he’s finally solved the case. Maybe he has; murder definitely doesn’t seem beyond her, and the body count is still rising. But by the time he arrives on the island she’s already vanished, and the more he investigates, the stranger this case seems. Is his growing obsession with her merely a desire for justice, or has something deeper and more powerful taken hold of him? And if so, how is this doomed desire going to end?

There’s an ecological side to it all

There’s an ecological element to Apnea right from the start, and it only grows as the series progresses. Théa’s presence as a “woman of the sea” with a past that echoes male persecution of witches gives her actions an element of revenge, but this isn’t a simple story of environmental payback. Théa’s actions could be an attempt to reverse the harm done by man, or just another symptom of it – especially when a mysterious black fluid starts filling the ocean, strangling the life out of it.

The visuals are stunning on land and sea

There’s plenty of action on dry land here, especially once the island’s inhabitants start turning on each other, forcing Chloé to choose between her friends and her heritage. And the nameless island (the series was filmed in Corsica), is always striking to look at, with a stark and wild edge we don’t usually associate with Mediterranean islands. But it’s the underwater sequences that are the standout moments here, giving the story a lyrical beauty that underlines just what’s at stake. In part this is a series about man’s desire to conquer and control the natural world, to possess and own its beauty. It’s in the stunning underwater scenes that we see that beauty fully expressed.

 

It’s a poetic experience

It’s those moments that raise Apnea above just a gorgeous-looking island drama. There’s plenty of plot here to keep audiences watching, and the supporting characters – especially the fiery Sabine and the obsessed Bruno – are compellingly drawn. But it’s the series’ willingness to reach for the poetic in its imagery, to tell its story in a way that’s realistic while still letting moments of magic come through, that brings the whole series to vivid life.

There’s a wider moral to this ecological tale too; it’s a powerful reminder of the importance of the sea not just to our physical survival, but as a space for our dreams and fantasies. When it dies, the whole world we’ve created there, the myths and fantastic creatures we’ve imagined under the sea, dies too.

Apnea is now streaming at SBS On Demand.

 

Follow the author @morrbeat

 

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