LILLE, France — The series the audience was about to see on Sunday night at Lille’s central UGC Cine-Cité multiplex wasn’t even playing in Series Mania’s main International Competition.
But in many ways, Netflix’s” “Osmosis” was certainly among the most-anticipated of shows at this year’s festival. The excitement before the screening was palpable, and pointed up multiple paradoxes about France’s current TV scene.
As a service, Netflix has taken France by storm. Launching in Sept, 2014, it has run up at least 5 million household subscriptions, as many as the retail subscriber base of pay TV Canal Plus, a pillar of France’s cultural establishment, which has been in service since 1985.
Released in May 2016, Netflix’s first sortie into French Original Series, “Marseilles,” a political corruption thriller starring Gerard Depardieu, proved polemical, being lambasted by many French critics, newspaper Le Monde dismissing it famously as “cowshit” (foreign critics were more benign, the U.K.’s The Guardian saying it felt “brash and loud and flawed, but not without its charms.”
Near three years later, “Osmosis” represents Netflix’s just third French Original Series, after December’s generally well-reviewed “The HookUp Plan.” It can be described, moreover, as fantasy sci-fi, a genre which has helped Netflix forge its fame in Originals. Hence the high expectation for “Osmosis” at Series Mania.
The series still has to run the gauntlet of French reviewers. The premise to “Osmosis” will draw inevitable comparisons to Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ”: In near-future Paris, two siblings, Esther and Paul Vanhove, invent a high-tech brain implant that, tapping into social media, allows users to locate their soul mates.
At a post-screening Q & A, “Osmosis’” creators tried to play down comaparisons with mid trip sci-fi. The series is not a French “Black Mirror,” its producers, Sarah Aknine and Aude Albano at Capa Drama (“Braquo,” “Versailles”), and director Julius Berg, argued.
“Is not quite a fantasy series, more near-future drama, but it is genre, talking about love” said Aknine.
Genre which taps into a zeitgeist. “No generation has ever been so connected, and yet felt so isolated. We’re handicapped in love,” added Berg.
“Osmosis” is in fact only part futuristic, as in the Osmosis control center, where Esther monitors the 12 beta testers, who have accepted an implant. Other locations are quite classical, including iconic Parisian landmarks such as its Opera House and the Seine River
Originally conceived by Audrey Fouché (“Borgia,” “Les Revenants”) and then put through a team of writers, “Osmosis’” target, as Netflix’s in general, is much broader than just mind-trip YA fare.
The beta testers, Ether and Paul, are all 20-30s, observed Capa Drama’s Albano.
The problem with the implant, which gives the series its title, is not the technology – at least in the first two episodes – but the fallibility of human nature. Some characters don’t want to use it at all. Esther argues she already has two soulmates to care for – her brother and mother. As soon as one beta tester, a young sex addict, is aroused by his potential soul-mate, he starts seeing images of porn. Another, a gay man, hesitates about leaving his longterm partner.
“The attraction of dystopias is that it allows creators imagination to run wild,” said Series Mania director general Laurence Herszberg.
Some of that can be seen in “Osmosis.” Paris maybe 15 years in the future is generally far more gentrified in “Osmosis.” Cars seem limited to the rich. Suits are out, worn only by the investors who get cold feet and sack Paul as head of the Osmosis project. Young people wear often single tone, colorful chic casuals.
What “Osmosis”also suggests is one future for fiction series in France.
The camera is frequently on the move, approaching characters, or capturing them in close up, sometime pulling focus to limit death of field. That directorial style may be apt for cell-phone users, Berg recognized. But it also helps focus on character. “I wanted characters with a strong identity, embodied characters, avoiding icy science-fiction,” he added.
Contrary to what is often thought, European pay-TV has proved “resilient in the face of SVOD growth,” said a recent report from Enders Analysis, a London-based consultancy. Reaching out to a broader audience abroad and via wholesale deals with rival operators in France, the Canal Plus Group still turns a profit.
As recent new series announcements for Spain and Germany underscored, Netflix is also attempting to offer a diverse range of series in Europe.
But public perception doesn’t always catch this. What the Series Mania screening of “Osmosis” got across forcefully was the craving of its almost entirely under-40 audience for French fantasy series. Here, Netflix is seen as a savior.
“Our generation likes science fiction, fantasy TV series. So this is pretty cool for a French TV series,” said Pierre, aged 24, after the screening.
Both Orange’s OCS – the economically-told mission-to-Mars thriller “Missions” – and Arte – the Lagardere-produced “Trepalium,” a not-too-distant-future dystopia thriller – have backed sci-fi fare to acclaim. Three of the six series playing in French Competition at this year’s Series Mania have fantasy elements, “Osmosis,” “The Last Wave,” made for public broadcaster France Télévisions, suggesting an ecological dsytopia; and “Une Ile,” a Lagardere production for Arte/Amazon and mermaid fantasy thriller.
But incumbents’ push into genre seems to have flown under the radar for many YAs in France.
“Young people in general only watch Canal Plus for sports,” Pierre added, praising Netflix for its accessibility, as well as price-point.
Established operators’ subscriber bases in France suggest many in France are rich enough to buy a classic pay TV service and Netflix. But established players also appear to have a problem of perception among younger demos, which is of concern for the future.