‘THE BUREAU’ (SUNDANCE)

As I looked through the lists of Best TV Shows of the Decade that began appearing at the end of the year, I noticed that “The Bureau” was conspicuously missing, so allow me to officially register it as a series that would appear on mine, if I had one. Technically, this French series is an espionage show, but its cerebral approach to its story and its focus on the human characters in its story, as much as the situations they are thrown into, make it far less a spy show and much more of a complex drama about distrust and dishonesty within human relationships.

At the center of the drama is agent Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), returning to the Directorate-General for External Security after six years undercover in Syria and not settling back easily. His biggest problem is one of the soul — while in Syria, he fell in love with a married woman, and upon his exit, he has realized that his role in Syria has endangered her life. Regretful of what his mission caused, he unexpectedly finds he might have one chance to undo the damage and maybe make a life with the woman he loves, and he goes for that.

The story of Debailly is juxtaposed with that of new recruit Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), a good-natured young woman who is headed to Iran to pose as seismologist, and whose career and fate seem continuously intertwined with Debailly’s actions. The show is filled out with various staff who support the agents from the office, run interference, set-up surveillance, and find themselves the bureaucratic firing line at times of tension and following mistakes in the particularly sensitive areas of infiltrating terrorist organizations and second-guessing the intelligence groups of other countries.

In “The Bureau,” all the events of the four seasons spiral out of that first episode and the decisions made by Debailly. It builds into an intricate web of activity that is complicated by the human emotions at play as the various members of the agency function in a world where no one can be trusted, not even each other, and it’s impossible to know anyone’s intentions as either something that will hurt you or help you. As they wander around emotionally blind in a dangerous world, it becomes apparent that the one thing that is always acceptable is doing your duty — and humanity is perceived as a betrayal to the country of your allegiance.

Filled with magnificent performances, edge-of-your-seat suspense, gut-punching drama and literary portrayals of socio-political unease, “The Bureau” is definitely one the decade’s television treasures.

‘FRANCE’ (‘LES HABITANTS’) (OVIDTV)

Documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon takes to the road with a camper and decides he’s going to capture the tapestry of modern France through interviews conducted in that trailer. Well, not interviews exactly, as he makes clear at the beginning of the film. More like he’s going to tap people and ask them if they will continue their street conversations inside the trailer, where he will film whatever results.

Naturally, there is one, and only one, demographic that is going to be covered in the film — people who will consent to be pulled off the street by a stranger and sit together inside his camper to have a possibly intimate conversation in front of his camera. My guess is that’s not a large demographic, but it’s enough to fill a movie and it’s enough to capture a populace in flux.

Making their way through the camper are young women, who seem unsettled and unsure about everything; posturing and thoroughly unlikable young men, old people shaking their heads at the new, parents hectoring their children about settling down and having kids, and good old-fashioned racists.

You know some of these factors to be true in any country, but it’s striking to see the class of disdain for the new and the different clashing with a lack of respect for the established and so-called normal. All this comes out in ordinary, sometimes mundane conversation that becomes fascinating the more iterations you hear. A fascinating movie offering a profundity that sneaks up on you, it’s that rare instance of capturing something in motion before we’ve figured out what it actually is.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle.

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