Zone Blanche/Black Spot is a French/Belgian 2 season series, with 8 episodes per season, that’s available on Netflix. The show takes place in the mysterious, isolated village of Villefranche, which is set so deep in the primeval forest that the entire village and its surroundings have no cell phone reception- the black spot, or zone blanche, of the title. People tend to die in the forest, giving Villefranche a high murder rate, but the forest is a living presence which occasionally gives someone back. The villagers are closely connected to each other and to the forest.
Main character Major Laurène Weiss, the chief of police for the village, is one of the survivors who came back from the forest as a young woman. Many years later, she remains haunted by the experience. In present day Villefranche, another young woman, Marion Steiner, the daughter of mayor and business owner Bertrand Steiner, has been missing for months. Laurène spends her spare time in the forest searching for Marion, who was close friends with her own teenage daughter, Cora. Laurène bristles when an outsider, prosecutor Franck Siriani, is sent to investigate the high crime rate in the small village.
We are introduced to Villefranche using the the 1964 song Mr Lonely by Bobby Vinton. Visuals include the mountainous forest, ravens, fog, and an emergency phone at the village boundary line.
You’ve been warned, Mr Siriani. Enter at your own risk.
The man we will later learn is Franck Siriani (Laurent Capelluto) is stuck just outside the line with a broken down car. He runs toward the phone and is attacked by biting bugs while he checks for cell phone reception. He slaps the bug, looks at his hand in fear, and begins to race walk back to his car.
His legs give out part way there in a performance worthy of Mr Bean. Siriani heroically drags himself the rest of the way to the car, finds his EpiPen, and injects himself in the leg while he’s lying on the side of the road. As Bobby Vinton sings, he wishes he could go back home.
Meanwhile, in another, more serious, part of the forest, Major Laurène Weiss (Suliane Brahim), her second in command, Sergeant Martial Ferrandis (Hubert Delattre), who is known as Teddy Bear (Nounours), and Dr. Leila Barami (Naidra Ayadi) search for a body that’s been reported in this area. They find the body of new district nurse Sandra Chevrier hanging from a tree.
They quickly assess and document the crime scene, showing that, although this is a small town, they are practiced at this sort of work. Though they knew the victim and are respectful, they show little emotion, again showing that they’ve become accustomed to this sort of loss.
Leila notes that the victim was stabbed 5 times while on the ground before she was hung from the tree. She died at least ten hours ago. Teddy Bear wonders why she was in such a remote spot.
Laurène examines the tree more closely and discovers the infinity sign carved into the other side, underneath thick moss. The tree’s sap is blood red. Leila thinks there must be iron oxide in the soil. Teddy Bear remarks, “The birds are going crazy. The trees are bleeding. We’re going to have a sh**ty year.”
Back at the station, Camille Laugier (Tiphaine Daviot), who is preparing for her investigating officer exam, and Chief Inspector Louis Hermann (Renaud Rutten) fill Laurène in on other town news. There’s a protest at the sawmill that threatens to get out of hand, since it’s the town’s largest employer and is scheduled to shut down in 2 days. Laurène sends Hermann to keep the protest under control. And someone found Siriani lying on the side of the road, loaded him up in their trailer, and brought him to the station. Now he’s asleep on the couch in Laurène’s office.
She was hoping he’d given up and turned around instead, since she doesn’t understand why he’s there anyway.
Once Siriani is awake, he gets started on a bottle of liquor while he talks to Laurène. They establish that he’s allergic to bees, most other insects, pollen, the sun, dust mites, and nuts. He’s still getting over the fact that he almost died on his way into town when all of his wireless devices failed at the same time, including GPS. Laurène adds that microwaves can be a bit temperamental in their black spot.
Laurène asks why he’s visiting in person when they usually talk to prosecutors on the phone. Siriani just took over the cases for Villefranche and was surprised at the size of the caseload. The Villefranche homicide rate is 6 times the national average. Laurène explains that they are an isolated village in an unforgiving environment with an understaffed police department. They don’t complain, but things happen. Siriani has 37 murder cases, now 38, that make him question what’s going on with the locals.
Laurène introduces Siriani to the rest of the police staff, all three of them. Hermann has begun his investigation into this morning’s murder, but hasn’t found much that seems of use yet. Sandra Chevrier was single, had no friends, and nothing stood out when he searched her home.
She and her brother, Dimitri, grew up in a foster home after their parents died. She came to the station to pick him up several times when he’d been arrested on drug charges. They decide to go talk to Dimitri, who still lives where they grew up.
Hermann remembers that the tree Sandra Chevrier was hung from is the same tree that they barely saved another man from dying on, Bruno Winkler, 5 years earlier. Hermann recognized the “eyeglasses” symbol carved into the trunk. Siriani explains that it’s the mathematical symbol for infinity, but Hermann is sure of his own interpretation. Bruno Winkler’s parents live in the area.
Siriani decides that they should take Laurène’s car and check things out right away.
Teddy Bear drives to the Winklers’ house, where no one answers the door. The trio enter and slowly search the house. The find Bruno Winkler in a hospital bed, on life support. His father comes out of the back of the house.
Mr and Mrs Winkler tell them that Sandra Chevrier was Bruno’s nurse. He’s been like this for 5 years, since he almost died by hanging. His brain went too long without oxygen. The doctors aren’t sure why he’s still alive, but his mother is sure he can understand what they say and holds out hope that he’ll improve.
Siriani pushes some buttons on the machine. He tells them he has experience with this model because of his own medical issues. Then he points out that every night, the machine fails to record data between 9:00 PM and 1:00 AM. Mr and Mrs Winkler claim they know nothing. The nurses handle the machines.
Five years ago, Bruno worked at the sawmill and spent little time with his parents. They didn’t see his suicide attempt coming and don’t know what it was about. Since then, they’ve always been there for him. When his mother makes this claim, the machines all register strong readings and alarms go off for a moment, then settle down.
Mrs Winkler claims it’s a normal reflex. This would be why she thinks he can hear what’s being said, since that was a well-timed reflex.
Bruno has the infinity symbol tattooed on his wrist.
As they leave the Winklers, Siriani mentions that in Dante’s Divine Comedy people who commit suicide go to the seventh circle of H*ll and are transformed into trees.
Trees that bleed. I do love a man who knows his Dante. As with the Bible, Dante can be used to answer all questions, if you are so inclined.
Laurène isn’t impressed by Siriani’s knowledge of medieval literature and tries to get rid of him before their next stop, but he’s much more persistent than that. Teddy Bear notices Mrs Winkler is staring at them while they get into their car. She’s not smiling.
The next stop is Sandra’s brother Dimitri’s house. Siriani makes a critical remark about the state of the place. Laurène snaps that Villefranche has the same problems that everyplace else does and they’ll proceed as they usually do in approaching Dimitri. Laurène knocks on the door and calls out to Dimitri. Teddy Bear has moved out of sight.
Siriani, who must have spent all of his time in the office and none with the people he was prosecuting, stands behind where the door will open and is slow to respond when Laurène tells him to move back. He asks her what she meant by “usual approach” just as Dimitri comes slamming out of the house, throwing the door into Siriani’s face. He’ll have a nosebleed and swollen nose to show for his first time out in the field.
While Laurène teaches Siriani how to deal with his nosebleed, Dimitri runs straight into Teddy Bear, who takes him down with one move, then has to inform him of his sister’s death. That part is sad, but it’s funny that this was the “usual approach”, and Dimitri apparently still runs in the same direction every time the police come to his house.
You’d think Siriani would have had nosebleeds before. He just seems like the type.
Once they all get inside, Laurène hands tissues to Siriani and questions Dimitri. She’s the head of the police because she’s a great multitasker and surrounded by high need men.
Dimitri says that he hasn’t seen Sandra in a month, since they had an argument about his drug use. She was pushing him to quit once and for all. Laurène asks what he knows about Bruno. Dimitri gets even more upset and tells them that five years ago, when they all worked at the sawmill, Bruno was Sandra’s supervisor and he tried to rape her. She pressed charges and that’s why he tried to kill himself. Dimitri is sure that he came out of his vegetative state to get revenge on Sandra. He breaks down.
The three investigators wonder why they didn’t find a record of the charges in their initial search. Back at the station, Siriani looks into it and is told that charges were filed in July 2011, but since there was no evidence and Bruno was in a coma, the case was dropped. Either they didn’t believe Sandra or they were pressured to drop it to spare the Steiners, who own the sawmill and half the town, the scandal.
They assume that Sandra took the job caring for Bruno so that she could get revenge, but she’s the one who ended up dead. Teddy Bear thinks the recordings that were erased must have shown something important.
They’re interrupted when Camille gives them a message from Hermann. All she could understand was “mess, sawmill, quick.” The three police officers rush out to help Hermann. Siriani decides he’s had enough for his first day.
The protest is against the sawmill shutdown. The protestors throw things at the police and shout at them to leave. Hermann says he’s gotten the crowd under control again and points them toward the mayor, Bertrand Steiner, who also owns and runs the sawmill.
The townspeople want to know what Steiner’s plans are for the town once the sawmill shuts down. He won’t give them a straight answer. He just tells them that he’s always got the best interests of his town in mind. The people rebel, yelling that this isn’t the Middle Ages and he isn’t the feudal lord.
Bertrand tells Laurène that he called for reinforcements who haven’t arrived. The protestors shut down the mill for the day, so they haven’t been able to fulfill their orders. Plus, Laurène’s daughter, Cora, and her friend, Rudy chained themselves to the logging tracks. Laurène is frustrated with Cora, since this is the latest in a long line of protests. Cora tells her mother that she’s on the wrong side. Laurène decides to arrest all of the protestors, including Cora and Rudy.
Laurène and Bertrand go to his office, where he complains that no one understands that he has no choice about closing the mill. The lumber business is no longer profitable. Laurène tells him not to yell at her, since the protests aren’t her fault. Then she consoles him that his missing daughter, Marion, will come home. She says that runaways are found all the time, even after six months. Police in the entire region are looking for her.
Laurène mentions Sandra’s murder and rape and asks for his help, but he refuses without a warrant. She points out that his father will block a warrant. He still refuses and accuses her of mixing the personal and the professional. She walks out, after telling him Sandra’s name.
Someone is chained to the rocks in a cave in the forest.
That night, at the local bar, El Dorado, Leila drinks ten shots to prove that she can’t get drunk. The place is crowded because the first drink is free for out of work sawmill employees. Leila notices that Laurène looks like she went ten rounds with the mayor. Both Leila and Sabine, the bar owner, say that Laurène should stop dallying with Bertrand and move on. Laurène insists that they haven’t been together since high school, but no one believes her.
A man named Pierrot hassles Laurène over being too cosy with the mayor. She tells him to back off because she’s off duty and doesn’t want to work tonight. He asks what she and her eight fingers will do about it? Laurène calmly explains that she lost her fingers in a hunting accident with a wild boar, whose head she’s had hanging in her living room ever since. She can add his head to her collection, if he wants. He tries to come at her, but Sabine tasers him.
Siriani walks in just as Pierrot goes down. His car is still being repaired so he needs to rent a room from Sabine for the night. He says that he’ll continue to help her with the cases. She did some research on him and discovered that he’s being punished. He says that he didn’t see eye to eye with his superiors.
Laurène drives out to the forest and searches. It appears that she’s methodically searching in a grid pattern.
Siriani rents a room from Sabine that isn’t up to his standards of cleanliness. It appears to have a stuffed, dead Harpy on the wall, which he notices as he’s bathing in hand sanitizer.
When Laurène gets home she tries to make peace with Cora. Cora isn’t ready to be forgiving. She just wanted to hold off Steiner long enough to get an injunction against the sawmill shutdown. Plus, she’s blames Bertrand for driving Marion, her best friend, away.
In the morning, Cora leaves through her bedroom window, taking her bow and arrows with her. She’s on her way to archery practice. Laurène watches her go- the climb out the window isn’t for secrecy. It’s to avoid conversation with her mother.
Teddy Bear arrives just as Cora leaves and is happy to eat her share of breakfast while he and Laurène talk business. He had nightmares about Bruno. Laurène teases him about being fragile, but he says it’s that it’s strange to see a suspect in a coma. He wants to go back to talk to Mr and Mrs Winkler to explore his instinct that there’s something off about them. He points out that it’s odd that they didn’t complain when the woman whose report led to Bruno’s suicide attempt and current vegetative state turned up as his nurse.
Laurène tells him to keep investigating the parents. She has something else to do.
She goes back to the forest and the tree where Sandra was hung, while Hermann, Camille and Teddy Bear question the parents and search the house. When Laurène touches the infinity sign, Bruno is shown startling, even though he’s at home in bed.
Hermann doesn’t understand how the parents have held on to someone in this state for so long. He went through this with his wife. It was like she was there and not there. At his request, Camille promises not to let him linger in the same state, should it ever come to that.
Bruno’s parents are only marginally cooperative. They deny that they or Bruno had any involvement in anything, either 5 years ago or now. Mrs Winkler states in the present tense that her son hates people messing with his stuff. Camille and Hermann discover that Bruno’s hands and feet are dirty with soil. Bruno has tremors while Laurène digs up a metal box from the base of the tree. There are photos of Sandra inside.
Sabine tells Siriani that he’s stuck in town for a while because his car had more trouble than the mechanic realized. She says that often happens with foreign cars, by which she means cars that don’t live in Villefranche. She had his files sent over so he could work and has given him the royal suite. The file at the top is about the Steiner family. Siriani realizes there might be a point to his car troubles.
Laurène shows the contents of the metal box to Dimitri. They both believe that she buried it in the forest years ago and went back to retrieve it the night she was killed. Dimitri also believes that Bruno visited his house to stalk him recently, but Laurène is certain that Bruno is unable to.
Leila assures the police that she’s looked over Bruno’s records and he’s really in a persistent vegetative state. Teddy Bear doesn’t know what’s going on, but he knows something is. Leila offers to find him a guy to hook up with, but he goes to keep an eye on the Winklers instead. Laurène asks Hermann to find other summer interns who worked with Marion, but to avoid going through the Steiners. Camille pops some pills to keep her awake through studying and working full time.
Laurène leaves to go back to the forest again. Leila and Camille are shocked that she’s going back alone and isn’t afraid. Hermann says that she’s always afraid. Laurène parks near the forest, puts on her layers of sweaters, raincoat and backpack, and heads out into the woods. Teddy Bear arrives at the Winkler house, finds the backdoor wide open, and Bruno’s bed empty.
Laurène is followed by Bertrand, who looks like a monster in the distorted light from his car headlights. He asks what she’s looking for and doesn’t believe that she’s working on a case. He drops his cool facade and becomes a desperate man who’s lost his daughter. He’s certain that she’s searching for Marion and that his daughter is doomed.
Another brief flash of a woman fighting to free herself from her chains in a deep forest cave is shown.
Teddy Bear finds Bruno laid out on his back on the ground, wearing only his underwear and struggling to breathe. Nearby, Mrs Winkler sits and watches. She won’t let Teddy Bear touch Bruno, insisting that nightly contact with the soil is what’s keeping her son alive. But her husband has had enough and feels that it’s time to let their son go.
The next day, Hermann says he’s found three of the interns who worked with Bruno and Sandra. They all knew the rape story but don’t remember Bruno doing anything inappropriate in their presence. One of the photos in Sandra’s box showed all of the interns together. Laurène discovers that Sandra had an infinity tattoo that matched Bruno’s. They wonder if Sandra and Bruno were a couple and Sandra later had the tattoo removed.
Hermann once again insists that it’s an eyeglasses tattoo.
They discuss the need to go through the sawmill’s files again, but are certain they can’t get into them. Siriani steps into the room and suggests they haven’t asked nicely enough yet, by which he means the police haven’t presented the Steiners with a warrant.
Bertrand gets all personally insulted when he sees the warrant, then tells Laurène that they destroyed their files in anticipation of the sale of the sawmill. Then he tells her that he saved everything that was related to Sandra’s internship, just for her.
Uh huh. I’m sure he was just about to stop by her bedroom with it. He clearly has some real emotions, but he’s also not above using anything he can to manipulate her and everyone else.
Bertrand says that not long before his suicide attempt, Bruno Winkler requested drug testing in his workshop and five workers tested positive.
Bertrand makes another crack about Laurène bringing in the prosecutor unnecessarily and wasting his time, but Siriani assures Bertrand that he lives for this sort of thing. Plus, it gave him a chance to meet the mayor. Bertrand would have preferred to meet over a nice lunch, but with all of his food allergies, serving a warrant is a more pleasurable experience for Siriani.
It’s left unspoken, but the mayor probably should have made himself available earlier.
Bertrand’s wife, Léa (Anne Suarez), pokes her head in to say that it’s time for her and Bertrand to leave for an appointment.
In the file, they discover that Sandra’s brother Dimitri was one of the interns that summer who tested positive for drugs. Laurène and Siriani decide that she must have lied about the rape allegation to protect Dimitri, forcing her to choose between the man the loved and her brother. They consider that she kept her silence about what she’d done for 5 years, then was murdered. Siriani thinks that she dug up her box of photos because she was going to confess to the truth.
They rush to Dimitri’s house, only to find that he’s OD’d. He confesses to Laurène before he passes out. He meant to surprise Sandra rather than kill her. He’d gotten clean, like she wanted. But he saw her leaving Bruno’s house, then going to their tree and realized she still loved him. She wanted to get rid of Dimitri, to be free as a bird. Now he wants to be free, too.
The protesters sit silently outside the sawmill. Rudy tells Cora that they weren’t able to get the injunction because the guy who was supposed to file for it got beat up instead and is in the hospital. Inside, Gaspard Bellan, Bertrand’s main henchman, tells him that he’s taken care of everything that stood in their way. The judge that’s in their pocket gave them a demolition permit, but he’s worried about Siriani. Bertrand doesn’t think Siriani will be a problem. He finishes packing up his office, then leaves with his personal belongings.
Laurène finds Siriani reading Dante at a table in the bar. “In the middle of the journey of life, I found myself astray in a dark forest.” She doesn’t approve. He mentions that there’s no church in VilleFranche.
Laurène: “We tried to build one, one day, in the 15th century, I think. The stones were supposed to arrive by boat and there was a storm. Everything sank. End of story. The moral is- We are alone.”
Sabine brings him a pot of tea. Laurène tells him that she knows his car is fixed. He says that he’s decided to stay in Villefranche for a while. She says that there are bees and nuts in town. He knows, but she’s convinced him that it’s a special place.
He’s done some research on her, as well. She was born in Villefranche and has never left, even to take another police posting, which is unusual. 20 years ago, she disappeared and was found three days later with two fingers missing. He notes that she was luckier than the mayor’s daughter. She gets up and walks out without a word.
The woman in the cave is shown again. This time we can see that it’s Laurène. She finds a sharp rock and cuts off her pinkie and ring fingers from her left hand so that her hand will fit through the manacle around it, allowing her to escape.
Lyrics to Mr Lonely, which play as the forest begins its attack on Siriani, leaving him crawling toward the emergency phone:
I am so lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely
Wish I had someone to call on the phone
Now I’m a soldier, a lonely soldier
Away from home through no wish of my own
That’s why I’m lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely
I wish that I could go back home
Letters, never a letter
I get no letters in the mail
I’ve been forgotten, yes, forgotten
Oh how I wonder, how is it I failed
These lyrics will only become more relevant. Never say this show doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Siriani refers to the seventh circle of H**l, as described by Italian writer Dante Alighieri in his 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, which is broken up into sections that take place in H**l (Inferno), Purgatory and Heaven (Paradiso). Dante travels through the nine concentric circles of torment which make up the Inferno and lead to the recognition and rejection of sin. The seventh circle is for souls whose sin was violence.
The 1st ring within the seventh circle is for those whose violence was against neighbors, the 2nd ring is for those whose violence was against themselves and the 3rd ring is for those whose violence was against God, Art and Nature. There is a separate punishment for each ring. The 1st ring, where Dimitri might go (he’s both a suicide and a murderer), is punishment by immersion in a river of boiling blood and fire. The punishment for the 3rd ring is to be left in a field of burning sand while fireballs rain down from the sky. The 2nd ring is the Wood of the Suicides, where the souls of the dead are transformed into silent, gnarled trees which are fed upon by Harpies, bird-like mythical wind spirits.
When her body was found, Sandra Chevrier’s eyes had already been pecked out by the ravens who are ubiquitous in and around Villefranche. Sandra wasn’t a suicide, but maybe she felt she deserved to die after seeing the condition Bruno was in. Bruno’s mother believed he was drawing healing energy from the earth, the opposite of the punishment for the 3rd ring, being tormented by contact with the earth.
When the police are discussing the matching tattoos and the possibility of Sandra and Bruno being a couple, it never occurs to them that he could have raped her even if they were a couple at the time, or had been a couple in the past. Having sex once isn’t permission for sex in the future. Consent has to be given every time or it’s rape, no matter what the pair’s relationship status is. The fact that the only possibility the police consider is that Sandra lied about the rape shows how difficult it is for women when they report a rape. The fact that the show ultimately determines that Sandra lied about being raped is deeply disturbing and only contributes to real life rape culture.
Likewise, because they saw Bruno’s tattoo first, they assume he got his first or the two got them together, despite the signs of potential stalking in this case. It doesn’t occur to them that Sandra could have had the tattoo first and Bruno could have copied it to make it look like they were a couple as part of a stalking and harassment campaign that was meant to pressure her into becoming his girlfriend.
The murder victim quickly became the wrongdoer, based on little evidence, because a few people said her alleged rapist was a nice guy. As if it’s not typical for people to be nice in some situations and the opposite in others.
The resolution of Sandra’s story was simplistic and misogynist, with the implication that she caused the deaths of herself and her brother and the attempted suicide by Bruno by accusing Bruno of rape to protect her drug addict brother 5 years ago. The Steiners must have buried the whole original incident, including the drug tests.
Sandra might as well have been named Eve or Pandora. She even had an incriminating box and a serpent-like symbol to show that she led both men to their deaths through her bad decision making. Though the two men got the agency of taking their own lives, while she was murdered. Dimitri made sure to state that he’d done everything for her in his final statement.
At least Black Spot does have a number of complex and intriguing female characters already, such as Laurène, Leila, Sabine, Cora and Camille. The male characters are also varied and 3 dimensional in their personalities. I’m looking forward to getting to know Teddy Bear, Siriani, Hermann, Rudy and Bertrand. Not so much Gaspard, but that’s the way he’s written.
The Village of Villefranche and the surrounding forest are imposing characters themselves, which make this a unique show. Laurène’s story about the almost-church didn’t really show that Villefranche is alone. It showed that the Old Gods wouldn’t let the new Christian God in. They are jealous gods who can be fickle and hard to understand, as we’ve already seen.
Laurène feels like she’s ultimately alone in Villefranche, but she’s searching for something or someone in the forest. It’s implied to be Marion, but is that the truth? She got herself out of the cave as a young woman, but who put her into the chains? Does the forest require an occasional human sacrifice and the people instinctively know this, driving some to murder? Does Laurène have a connection to the forest now, making her a witch?
Siriani is Dante, setting off on a perilous journey of self-discovery and growth, which will test him to the heights and depths of his soul. At the end of Dante’s journey, he found God or self-actualization, whichever way you want to think of it. The forest has already given Siriani multiple warnings, while the people have given him mixed messages about getting involved in their affairs.
The aptly named Teddy Bear just has the best, warmest, most calm and steady presence. The scene where he and Laurène had breakfast together established their close friendship and working relationship. Both are delightful. Everyone has flaws, but it’ll be heartbreaking if Teddy Bear ever shows a devious side. His steady eye complements Laurène’s quick thinking, making them a great detective pair.
Siriani brings his law education and a love of solving complex puzzles by thinking outside the box to the mix, while Hermann has an amazing memory and eye for detail and Camille is the practical straight shooter.
Bertrand is slippery and complicated. He has deep feelings, but he’s also manipulative and ruthless when necessary. He’s juggling being mayor, shutting down the main business in town, being married, having a daughter who’s missing and having a strong emotional connection to Laurène. And that’s just what we got from the pilot.
Bertrand is very intelligent and he cares about all of his involvements, but I suspect that his loyalties are frequently tested. The destruction of the sawmill’s records was especially suspicious. Then there was the way he told Gaspard to keep the details of his activities to himself. Those two are involved in some kind of shady dealings that won’t be good for Villefranche.
Images courtesy of Netflix.