The quality of every element in A French Village is uniformly high.
World War II has been a popular topic for film and television programs for years, but few of those fictional portrayals have focused on how the war affected daily life in occupied regions. That’s one reason the French television series A French Village feels so fresh and insightful—it’s not about heroics on the battlefront or heartwarming displays of patriotism far from the action but about the ways ordinary citizens in a small French village cope, on a day-to-day basis, with the reality of living under German occupation.
The main action in A French Village takes place in Villeneuve, a fictional village in the Jura region of France. Villeneuve came under German occupation in Season 1, and the course of the war is traced by the way events affect the residents of the village and the German troops stationed there. The German invasion of Russia, for instance, is personalized by the fate of several German soldiers who fall into disfavor and are punished by being sent to the Russian front. The increasing oppression of Jews is dramatized through the increasing restrictions and dangers faced by the Jewish residents of Villeneuve, from the seizure of one character’s bicycle to the scheduled removal of another to the Pithiviers internment camp, as well as the to “aryanization” of a local industry.
The quality of every element in A French Village is uniformly high, from the writing to the acting to the details of the period recreation. So, even if you are not particularly interested in the history behind the events featured in the episodes, you can enjoy watching it as an excellent dramatic series. For me, the most interesting aspect of A French Village is the way it hones in on ethical issues faced by the characters, which are presented as true dilemmas in which they are forced to choose not between right and wrong but between multiple rights or wrongs. This is most obviously true for Daniel Larcher (Robin Renucci), the town doctor who is also serving as mayor. He’s portrayed as a truly good man who does his best to hold on to his principles while also recognizing the need to negotiate with the German occupiers to achieve the best results for the citizens of his town. He doesn’t have the option of remaining “pure” and refusing to deal with the devil, in other words, because while making that choice might be personally satisfying, it would also be a betrayal of the responsibility he has accepted.
Here’s one of the dilemmas Daniel faces. Following the murder of a German officer, the Germans round up a number of French citizens and announce that they will execute 20 of them in retaliation for the officer’s death. The Germans are already in power and can do whatever they want, so he can’t stop them through force, and his choices are limited by reality, so the cavalry won’t be riding to the rescue. He could simply allow the executions to happen, giving the Germans another opportunity to prove how evil they are and encouraging more French citizens to join the Resistance. He could try to stall, in the hopes that the Germans might cool down and change their minds or become distracted by some other crisis. He could negotiate and try to reduce the number of deaths, which some would say makes him a collaborator, and by making the German action more reasonable might actually be strengthening their power. He could provide information that would identify the single individual the Germans are really after, in which case they will release all the hostages. This choice would make him even more of a collaborator but would also result in the greatest number of lives saved. The latter choice is an example of the trolley problem thought experiment, which basically asks a person to choose between taking an action that will result in the death of one person, versus taking no action, which will result in the death of many more people.
I do have one bone to pick with A French Village, with the way it distributes both the key dramatic material and the blameworthy actions (and yes, even in the difficult circumstances faced by these characters, there are some choices that are just wrong). The series is notable for its large number of main characters (15, by one count) and numerous vivid minor characters as well. Both men and women are represented among the central characters, but men are predominant in terms of both screen time and action. That may not be surprising, given the roles of men and women at the time, and perhaps it will shift as the series progresses. More annoying is the fact that the few truly awful characters, characterized either by personal nastiness or by unforgiveable acts of betrayal, are predominantly female, and female characters are more often condemned for actions in a way that the male characters are not (a man can have a mistress without being shown as hateful, but women don’t have the same choice). Perhaps this will also shift over the course of the series. I certainly hope so, because they’re getting everything else so right. | Sarah Boslaugh
A French Village: Season 2 is available on DVD from MHz and on VOD from MHz Choice. I watched this season on VOD, so I can’t comment on DVD extras, but the VOD website includes six bonus short documentaries about topics relevant to the series: “Aryanization,” “Invasion of the USSR,” “The Status of Women,” “Franco-German Love Affairs,” “The Elites,” and “The Hostages.” Each film is about five minutes long and packed with information, provided through interviews with historians and persons who have personal experience (granted, often one or two generations removed) relevant to the topic in question.