Marianne review: Netflix's French original horror series is engineered to scare the hell out of you
Bolstered by fine writing and inspired casting, Marianne is a show that does justice to traditional horror.
Once all is said and done regarding Marianne, the French Netflix original series, Mireille Herbstmeyer’s terrifying portrayal of an old woman possessed by a witch will continue to live on in horror folklore. Her Madame Daugeron is the highlight of the initial episodes. Her mere presence sends chills down your spine. But her demonic, commanding stare won’t permit you to look away. Herbstmeyer’s propulsive performance has the more significant effect of setting a firm foundation for the rest of the series. It allows the protagonists to settle gradually into the narrative around her, before proceeding to take over and pursuing the central mystery.
Emma Larsimon (Victoire Du Bois) is a successful horror novelist. She’s made a fortune with the Lizzi Larck series, which pits Lizzi against Marianne, a witch who never leaves a person without taking something from them. Emma decides to pursue a different form of fiction by bringing the Lizzi series to an end. But her plans are dealt a blow by the tragic entry of Caroline Daugeron, a childhood friend from her hometown, into her life. Emma starts being plagued by horrifying nightmares right after. So she manipulates Camille, an assistant to her literary agent, into accompanying her to her parents’ house in her hometown.
Elden is a tiny, picture-perfect coastal town that Emma left behind for good. The moment she visits Madame Daugeron to talk about Caroline, her daughter, Emma’s life goes for a tailspin. Everyone including her parents, Camille, the town priest and her gang of friends from childhood are confronted by the wrath of Marianne. Emma’s presence seems to galvanise everything that’s evil about the town. Stubborn, resolute and idiosyncratic, she decides to put an end to the suffering.
On paper, there’s nothing new about the story of a person who’s dragged back to a place they left long ago to confront the ghosts of the past. Ditto for a gang of friends getting together once again in an effort to extinguish the evil that they can trace back to their childhoods. Show creator Samuel Bodin doesn’t break new ground with Marianne. He focuses on the unrelenting trauma experienced by Emma instead. Her freewheeling, amoral and selfish exterior tries to hide the mountain of pain underneath.
Emma is aware of the double edged nature of her near Faustian relationship with Marianne. Her friends never fail to remind her that she’s rich or that every single one of them has always adored her. But she’s left to wrestle with her demons alone. Or perhaps she chooses to. Marianne becomes the reason for her to band up with her friends or come closer to her estranged parents.
While Emma makes for a bewilderingly fascinating character, the show often suffers from baffling momentary tonal shifts. Bodin tries to inject humour to lighten things up a bit in the overwhelmingly gloomy atmosphere. But Emma’s flawed, broken but immensely human persona goes a long way toward grounding the show whenever it ventures into awkward, unnecessary nooks and corners.
It isn’t difficult to guess what Bodin is going for. He strives to create an entertaining package comprising horror, drinking buddies-love, humour and the odd injection of lively pop music. His ambition requires a masterful grasp of the art of balancing multiple tones. In that he often fails miserably. But the show never nosedives into mediocrity. And that’s largely owing to the immaculately crafted scary sequences. At the end of the day, a punishing atmosphere and great scary sequences elevate a good horror story, and Bodin excels at them. The writing, the gliding camerawork, performances and the music come together almost perfectly in these sequences. They are dark, horrid, deliberately paced and full of surprises. In sum, they’d scare the hell out of you.
Marianne herself is a terrifying but fascinating creation. Her presence lends the show an uneasiness and discomfort that is passed on to the viewer by the brooding atmosphere. No wonder she casts a spell over the town. Or us. But the spell is broken whenever Bodin drops humour or those dastardly pop songs into the mix. Now I know he’s trying to give us time to get our breath back. Personally, however, I would have preferred to spend the 300-odd minutes of the show incarcerated hopelessly within its world. And then there’s the more pressing issue of organicity. The lighter moments appear forced into the narrative, momentarily ruining the experience.
Emma and her gang’s battle with Marianne provides enough scares to keep you glued to the show. Whenever it threatens to degenerate into old wine in a new bottle, Bodin drops the trademark scary sequences that make Marianne memorable. Bolstered by fine writing and inspired casting, Marianne is a show that does justice to traditional horror. Emma’s battle with evil and the roll of the proverbial dice looks set to continue into another season. If Bodin can sort out the abrupt tonal shifts, Marianne has the potential to become a genuinely brilliant show.
Rating: ★★★ and 1/2
Marianne is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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