Recently I’ve been playing a little mental game around the names of characters from the hit French Netflix series, “Call My Agent”, or “Dix Pour Cent” in its original French title.
I discovered the series in a rather roundabout way after reading about and then watching a few episodes of the Indian “Bollywood” spin-off version first, also on Netflix U.K, and now one of many adaptations around the world set in a busy actors agency and where the novelty is the inclusion of “A” list actors playing themselves.
If you’re wondering why I should take an interest in a French language TV series particularly I would answer by saying that, apart from immersing myself in many classic French New Wave, and other, films throughout the Covid lockdown as an opportunity to watch all those films I feel I should have watched much earlier in life but never had the time or opportunity to do so, and the fact that for some reason I had developed a fascination for French cinema in my teens after seeing a tantalisingly brief behind-the-scenes clip of a film whose title I only discovered 3 decades later in the 2000’s – Jacques Demy’s “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” that in turn led to seeking out his other films and those of his partner, Agnes Varda, and then the vast treasure trove of classic French cinema spanning the pre and post-war periods through to the French “Nouvelle Vague”(“New Wave”) of the 1960’s and through to the present.
But what has this got to do with memory?, you may well ask, – well, recently, having turned 66, failing memory has become a new source of anxiety, and like heart attacks (I had a heart attack in 2010 and now have a stent), memory loss in old age is now the subject de jour of numerous social media posts and TV commercials to go alongside those staples of infomercials such as constipation, hair loss, prostate problems, erectile disfunction, nail fungus, Botox and incontinence – adding to an ever-growing list of things to keep you awake at night.
I can point to other examples in popular culture where the names of both fictional characters and their real-life counterparts have become embedded in the cultural psyche – “Star Trek” immediately springs to mind – and while people often mistakenly refer to ”Mr Spock” as “Dr Spock”, we know who they are referring to, and the hardcore fan will know that he was played by Leonard Nimoy as they will know that “Captain Kirk” was played by William Shatner and then proceed to reel off the names of the regular ensemble cast members.
Admittedly, in the English-speaking world at least, the names of the regular cast of “Call My Agent” haven’t quite yet reached that stage globally but they are what form my little mental exercise and invariably panic ensues when I forget a name and results in finger counting, either of a character or the actor in the role of a character in the ensemble cast.
As a rule I very rarely plug in to series and deliberately missed “Game of Thrones”, “The Sopranos” and others for various reasons, mainly to do with genre, but where “Call My Agent” is concerned I will happily dip into the series, currently at 5 seasons, many times over and often out of sequence to re-live its many memorable moments for reasons that I can only put down to the shows’ underpinnings in classic French cinema embodied in the character of “Arlette Azemar” (Liliane Rovère), the elderly co-founder of the agency whose pet dog is named after the actor Jean Gabin and so lends the show a timeless quality.
”Call My Agent” immediately caught my attention because up to the point that I first heard about the series I had watched a ton of French cinema and the series has been described as “A love letter to French cinema” by the American actress Sigourney Weaver”, around whom one episode is based, and while “Call My Agent” is a very idealised fantasy of what a Paris talent agency might be like, it keeps it’s feet on the ground thanks in large part to the real-life experiences of Dominique Besnehard (he makes an appearance as himself in a couple of episodes) as an actor’s agent, and is the show’s co-creator with the screenwriter, Fanny Herrero.
There are 9 regular cast members whose complicated personal lives are intertwined with their work at the talent agency “ASK” (Agence Samuel Kerr) dealing with vain and neurotic “A” list acting talent and trying and often failing, to be likeable at the same time, but it’s that ambiguity that makes them interesting.
That’s 2 more characters than appeared in the original series of “Star Trek”, discounting the non-regular “Nurse Chapel” (Majel Barrett).
Part of my memory exercise began with an attempt to draw the main cast and a triumph of the casting is that the actors really seem to inhabit their roles perfectly, right down to the type of clothes they wear that effectively differentiate them – for example “Noemie LeClerc” (Laure Calamy), the secretary of agency boss “Mathias Barneville” (Thibault de Montalembert) is instantly recognisable from a distance in any shot.
French names can be a challenge if you’re an English speaker and this becomes a further obstacle when trying to remember a name and rather like ”Star Trek”, unless you’re a very casual viewer, a fictional character must be inextricably linked to their real-world counterpart.
The drawing was a bit of fun more than an aide memoire, a way to try and capture the character’s distinctive faces more than anything else and they are fodder for the caricaturist, though I wouldn’t count myself as such particularly. Putting a name to a face is a different matter altogether and my mental exercise – something to while away hours on the Tube or during my frequent trips to A&E – has centred on trying to remember the names of both the character and the actor playing the role.
From the point of view of a drawing, they all started out as individual posts on my Instagram page and it was only later that I realised that they would neatly fit a 9 square matrix followed by the name of the series to form a poster image of sorts, but could I remember the names ?
So, here we go: top left “Andrea Martel” (Camille Cottin), top middle “Mathias Barneville” (Thibaud de Montalembert), top right “Camille Valentini” (Fanny Sidney) – a tricky one since her fictional character shares a first name with Camille Cottin, leading to confusion, Middle left “Gabriel Sarda” (Grégory Montel),
Middle centre “Noémie Leclerc” (Laure Calamy), Middle right “Sophia LePrince” (Stéfi Celma – one I struggle with), bottom left “Hervé André-Jezak” (for me just “Hervé” will suffice:)) (Nicolas Maury), bottom centre “Arlette Azemar” (Liliane Rovère), bottom right “Hisham Janowsky” (Assaad Bouab).
I guess I’ll have to watch the series several times over before I’m able to reel off the names without a beat but the point is really to remind myself how much I have enjoyed watching a series that has become a popular culture phenomenon for anyone who likes cinema.