France 3’s continuing little World War Two epic Un Village Français has just reached the end of its third season, with double episodes playing on Sunday nights over the festive break. This ongoing TV series, planned to run over 5 years, is an attempt to tell the story of everyday life in Vichy France. I for one, am rather enjoying it.
The series takes place in Villeneuve, a fictional town in Vichy-controlled territory in the Jura. The town, which is a subprefecture and certain larger than the “village” indicated in the title, is populated by a vast ensemble cast of men, women and children who are coping with war, occupation and a new totalitarian government as best they can.
The writers seem to emphasise verisimilitude and human interest, rather than strict historical accuracy: the active viewer forum on the France 3 website is stuffed with trainspotters pointing out errors in chronology, military equipment or administrative arcana. However, if sometimes the scenarios spiral towards melodrama, the performances are solid.
Robin Renucci (right) plays Dr Daniel Larcher
Robin Renucci is magnificent as Dr Larcher, the town’s doctor and mayor, balancing his family and medical practice with demands of local politics under the Vichy regime. The belgian actor Patrick Descamps, noted in France for his other appearances as a TV detective, plays the increasingly disillusioned and alcoholic Inspector De Kervern, who must hold down a desk job in the town’s police station, while harbouring a Jewish woman in his apartment.
Occasionally the series seems rather didactic – for instance, one episode entitled Par amour concentrated largely on the intimate relationships developing between French women and the German troops stationed in the town.
In addition, each episode ends with a 5 minute historical “featurette” including interviews with French people who lived through the Vichy era, reflecting on their own experiences during wartime: here the show seems to take some inspiration from Spielberg-produced historical dramas such as HBO’s Band of Brothers.
Marie Kremer as Lucienne Borderie, Villeneuve’s primary school teacher
All things considered, Un village français is a worthy, well-made drama that makes up for its lack of Hollywood budget with its ambition: to recount the subtleties of an entire chapter in French history, told from the perspectives of the citizens of one provincial town. It’s certainly one of the best things on French TV.
After three seasons, the ensemble of characters is well-established, and the intrigues can only grow more complex as the war progresses. By the end of Season Three, we have only reached October 1941. There are still 3 years of occupation to go. I hope that funding for the show continues, so we can live with Villeneuve through to liberation.
Gustave Larcher: (Maxim Driesen, centre) nephew of the mayor and son of a communist terrorist