A French Village: Season 1 (MHZ Networks, NR)

A French Village 75After a few episodes, I found myself hooked.





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Long-form television is the great cultural product of our time, and it’s always interesting to see what other countries are producing in this format. One such series is A French Village, which is set in a small French village near the Swiss border during World War II. The village, Villeneuve, is fictional, but is meant to be in the Jura province, in Occupied France, with the Demarcation Line running across a nearby bridge. Six seasons of A French Village were produced for French television, with each season covering one year of the war. The first season, which runs from June 12, 1940, to March 11, 1941, is now available on DVD from MHz Networks.

The series starts a bit slowly, and it’s confusing at first to keep track of all the different characters and how they relate to each other, but gradually you sort them out, and after a few episodes I found myself hooked. The principal characters include the town doctor, Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci), who is pressed into service as the mayor once the Germans arrive; his wife, Hortense (Audrey Fleurot); his brother Marcel (Fabrizio Rongione), a Communist; the owner of the town’s sawmill, Raymond Schwartz (Thierry Godard); his wife, Jeannine (Emmanuelle Bach); two policemen, Henri De Kervern (Patrick Descamps) and Jean Marchetti (Nicolas Gob); a farmer, Lorrain Germain (Dan Herzberg); his wife Marie (Nade Dieu); and a young schoolteacher, Lucienne Broderie (Marie Kremer). And you’re welcome—I just did you a huge favor by matching up character names, roles, and actors, something I was still working on well into the first season.

One of the great strengths of A French Village is that almost all the characters are a mix of good and bad points and are doing the best they can to carry on with their lives under extraordinarily difficult conditions. I counted only one character that was bad to the bone, and another who clearly came out on the dark side, and that’s including the occupying Germans as well as the villagers. People who have never lived under military occupation should be careful about judging those who have—it’s easy to say that you would have been the hero of the Resistance, or at least that you would never have cooperated in any way with the occupiers, but that’s just not how life works. Because of the series’ leisurely pace, the characters have time to evolve and to allow you as a viewer to understand how they make the decisions they do. You also have a chance to see how one simple action, that might pass without comment in normal times, can result during war in serious consequences never anticipated by anyone involved.

I was struck by the number of ethical dilemmas raised by the storylines in this series, and it would make a great educational tool, if combined with discussions led by someone familiar with the period, to acquaint Americans with how WWII was experienced by the citizens of another country. Here are a few of the ethical questions I jotted down while watching:

  • When there’s a shortage of goods necessary to life, such as food, how should they be allotted? In particular, should special consideration be given to the poor or to those who have many children, or should the hierarchies of privilege that existed before the war be allowed to continue?
  • When they are in direct competition with each other, how much priority should you give to the needs of your own family, those of your neighbors, and those of greater causes (such as winning the war, or promoting a particular political philosophy)?
  • Where is the line drawn between survival and collaboration? How much should you be able to prosper by furthering the cause of the Germans, and does it matter if you had other choices?
  • If you are a leading citizen pressed into service by the occupiers to keep order in the town, how can you balance your responsibilities towards individuals (who may well have committed crimes, but whom you would prefer not to hand over to the German authorities) and to the entire town (who might suffer more if the Germans believe you are not cooperating)?
  • How bad is it, really, to commit adultery? What if your spouse is away for the long term, or you believe he or she is dead, or if it’s part of an “arrangement” intended to compensate for debts your family can’t pay? How about if you are just bored? How about if you can save someone’s life by doing it?
  • Does anyone ever do a kindness without expecting something in return? If so, how can you be sure?

I’m not suggesting that there are correct answers to these questions, but they certainly could spark some interesting discussions. And even if you don’t have a philosophical bent, A French Village is great television, combining a variety of stories of human interest with a broad sense of the historical and geographic context in which the stories take place. Being a typical American who learned about WWII primarily in terms of how it affected the United States, I found myself doing a lot of googling to fill in some of the context for some of the episodes. I’m not complaining, because I learned a lot that way, and if you learned a more inclusive version of the events of the war, including something about what it meant to the civilian populace in the occupied countries, then you may be able to leave your computer shut and just enjoy the action on screen.

Season 1 consists of 12 episodes of about 50 min. each, with 3 episodes on each of 4 discs. The 4th disc also includes a series of short documentaries (31 min. total) featuring the historian Jean-Pierre Azéma and interviews with people who lived through World War II in France. These films provide context for the events of A French Village and cover the black market, Jews during the War, the resistance, the “exodus” of many French people from the Occupied North to the Vichy South, and Pétain and Vichy France. | Sarah Boslaugh

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