Contains some spoilers
Just in case there isn’t enough foreign language drama currently being broadcast in the UK, Channel 4 have set up their own special streaming service called Walter Presents, available via their All 4 catch-up on demand platform, which gives access to even more productions from around the world.
One of the latest additions to the service is The Passenger, a six-part thriller from France starring Jean-Hugues Anglade and Raphaëlle Agogué as psychiatrist Mathias Freire and police captain Anaïs Châtelet respectively who team up to investigate a series of killings of local vagrants, with all of the bodies staged to resemble stories from classical mythology such as Prometheus, Oedipus or Icarus. It’s an unusually Hollywood set-up for a French production, given that the country is fiercely proud about doing things the Gallic way and not giving up its cultural heritage in the face of an influx of media from the English speaking world.
Unfortunately the show barely gets through the first episode before pretty much junking the entire premise and substituting instead a Jason Bourne-style chase thriller. The killings do continue, but they merit a decreasing amount of time in each of the subsequent instalments (each episode is named after the latest mythological crime despite their growing irrelevance) and by the final episode the explanation for these bizarre events barely warrants a throwaway line of dialogue which doesn’t really make any sense and is a poor pay-off for anyone invested in the mystery.
And that pretty much sums up The Passenger as a whole. It feels as though it can’t be bothered deciding what it’s trying to do, but instead keeps getting bored and wanders off in a different direction whenever it feels like it. It turns out that the main character is a man suffering from amnesia who discovers that he has a series of identities one inside the other like Russian dolls, which lead him in turn from one set-up to another. That’s achieved through some painfully weak plot contrivances such as happening to walk down a side street in an unfamiliar city and seeing a painting in a gallery window, an out of the blue coincidence without which the narrative would otherwise stop dead. Bad guys pop up out of no where when the story needs to be spiced up by a hail of bullets, but there’s little or no explanation as to how they could always find their man as the action moves to Marseilles and then to Paris.
I’m aware that the French judicial system is very different to that of Britain or the UK, but it’s hard to believe that it’s a disastrously dysfunctional as represented here – although The Disappearance was equally as jarring when it came to the unbelievability of details of police investigations, so maybe it is. But it’s hard to believe that a senior detective like Châtelet could breeze into a psychiatric hospital unchallenged, misrepresent herself to a mentally ill patient as a therapist, and then proceed to question him as a murder suspect without anyone else present, no recordings and no notes being taken. Châtelet also believes it perfectly reasonable to fire a gun repeatedly into a darkened room over the heads of dozens of innocent bystanders who had been sleeping, so it’s hard to argue when she’s thrown off the case by her superiors – for once I’d be in complete agreement. Châtelet herself – a serving policewoman, don’t forget – is subsequently arrested and jailed for being shot at, without any recourse to a lawyer or judge. Meanwhile in another episode a SWAT officer targets an ill man sitting quietly in a hospice and shoots him despite repeated orders over the radio from his superior not to – seemingly without any consequences.
The impression all of this gives is that the writer Jean-Christophe Grangé isn’t particularly interested in the details of police and legal procedure, and simply writes whatever he feels necessary to advance (or frustrate) the plot at any given time. How else to explain why in one episode a major corporation refuses even to speak to the police without a warrant, and then in the next opens up its deepest, darkest filing room to a low-ranking officer flashing just his police ID.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters are all over the place as well. At least the amnesiac has an excuse for not being able to remember who he’s supposed to be or how he’s supposed to act in any given scene, and actually, Betty Blue star Anglade acquits himself rather well throughout and pretty much single-handedly keeps the whole thing more-or-less together. There’s less excuse for Châtelet who acts like a truculent teen throughout – decked out in a leather jacket, sulking whenever her father is around and then swooning for her new psychiatrist partner while irritably barking orders at all her long-serving police colleagues. She’s the very model of an emotional, erratic, neurotic female cliché that I hoped we’d long since seen the back of, and Raphaëlle Agogué does a remarkable job of managing to make her anywhere near believable or sympathetic. Even so, the fact that she is quickly overpowered no less than three times by an unarmed man, and fails to hear key witnesses being killed by multiple shots from a high powered snipers rifle just a hundred yards or so away pretty much kills any possibility of her credibility as a police officer of any merit.
The very least you should be hoping for from the series is a satisfying ‘who’s behind it all’ conclusion. Instead, the writer manages to prematurely kill off all the mystery men behind the illegal military/security conspiracy – one of the main villains is peremptorily bumped off between episodes and simply reported in the newspaper headlines the next day – and the story is forced to introduce a brand new character we’ve never seen or heard about before in the final 15 minutes to take the fall for the whole thing. Add to that the suggestion that one of the prime suspects has an identical twin brother and you know you’re deep into the sort of things that crime and thriller writers should never, ever be allowed to get away with under any circumstances.
The sloppiness and inattention to detail is frustrating, and a shame because The Passanger is beautifully shot and very well made on a technical level in terms of direction and editing, proceeding at a fast clip that at times can actually make you forget about the flaws and fault lines of the underlying story. Despite the problems with the scripts, I still found myself hoping that it was going to somehow manage to pull everything together and deliver a final episode that would pack a punch and retrieve the situation by making the whole journey worth while. Unfortunately it really didn’t, although at least the conclusion actually did wrap up the story despite then added a coda that practically begged for the show to be recommissioned for a second season – which, it’s worth noting, it didn’t get.
While it certainly fell well short of the expectations I’d had when I started watching the first episode, if you can be satisfied by style over substance then The Passenger might still be worth a go. Despite all my complaints I still don’t begrudge the time I spent watching it even if much of that was spent rolling my eyes at the latest clumsy misstep. Would I watch it again now, even knowing all the problems? Actually, you know, I just might: it really is very pretty to look at, and enjoyably high on the sheer absurdity scale.
Rating: ★ ★
All six episodes of The Passenger are available to stream in the UK via Channel 4’s All 4 service.