Sunday, March 2, 2008

Le Renard

A man’s hand smoothing a dead girl’s eyes shut, a wedding ring gleaming. An exotic dancer still costumed, dead in her bathtub only half full of water, her wrists scarred, no blood…

A wife reports her husband missing, two days and Gerd, the detective, tells the wife that no news is good news and she should call him if she hears any. When the husband finally calls his wife, he asks her to meet him in their usual place…

Now someone else is in the dead girl’s house, someone who knows where the safe is, in the stairwell behind the innocuous art…

Phone booths and gloves, people following people in cars, lurking in shrubs, money changing hands at the men’s club…

She was asking too much of him, wanted him to divorce his wife. He tried to make it look like suicide.

“Make it look like:” Maquiller—to make up, as with make-up… invent… but I digress.

It’s called Le Renard, or The Fox. France 2, a public television station, runs two episodes back to back each afternoon. The series is German voiced over in French, and the last line of every show is “Monsieur so-and-so or Madame/Mademoiselle, you’re under arrest for the murder of M. so-and-so.” Then the camera stops rolling on a final image, usually the accused being led away or handcuffed—the background for the closing credits with good German names like Helmut, Eberhard, Rolf (at least two,) Johannes, Jutta, Gunter, Helga, Hermann, and Claus (again, at least two of them.)

The main character is never addressed as Renard. His name is Leo Kress, Commissioner Kress. He’s balding, with sparse, white hair and thick, almost round wire-rimmed glasses that make his blue eyes look just a little too close together, or maybe they are. He has a sturdy nose with one of those short, narrow moustaches, not wider than his lip, and three inspectors in his équipe: Werner—the young, efficient evidence collector… his glasses are like mini versions of le Renard’s; Axel Richter—an awkward, lightly black man who has a lot to learn from the Renard. Axel does most of the driving and usually works in tandem with the third—Gerd, whose name I was able to hear only after I had seen it in the credits, a younger Renard, no moustache, usually tan. If I pay very close attention, I can almost grasp their witty banter. There’s also the coroner who arrives first on the scene—ready, when the detectives arrive, with his preliminary estimates of time and cause of death. He emphasizes their inexactitude.

Most of the stories involve a love triangle, or other polygon, older men and younger women, drugs and cash, and family businesses with feuding spouses, parents and siblings vying for control. Often there is a pair of murders, or a second one—always one of the suspects. Everyone is a suspect. Consequently, the list of standard alibis is long: “I was drunk, passed out, I don’t remember anything.” “I was in my car.” “I was at home, alone,” or they say they were with a spouse who may or may not agree to confirm the lie. This alone rarely indicates the murderer.

The detectives uncover large amounts of cash which might equate to hired hits, drugs, or bribes—in French, faire chanter, “someone making someone else sing.” Cell phone calls are researched, fingerprints dusted, passports are confiscated, and agendas—calendars and motives—are considered, but mostly there is a lot of questioning. The usual “Last night, where were you?” features prominently in the promo and in various versions throughout the drama: “Where were you last night between ten and midnight?... Where were you this morning between three and five?” They say they are obligated to ask this question, but they never start with it. They work up to it.

Eyes shift, hands fumble, and the camera captures the inspectors catching it all, informing their instincts. They exchange knowing glances, and roll their eyes behind the backs of the liars they interrogate, and everybody lies for all sorts of reasons: secretaries claiming not to have had sexual relations with their dead bosses, husbands—or wives—claiming not to have known about their dead spouses’ affairs, parents protecting—and implicating—children. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the Renard ever finding himself in the difficult situation of having to charge a child with murder, but the violations against them—and the ones against women—never go unpunished.

Like with many stories, it’s not so much what’s said or shown as what’s not. The answers are always in what’s missing… that is until all the pieces come together just before the arrest. A few murderers evade the Renard by committing suicide—jumping from a window, a noose, a shot to the head with the murder weapon.

The opening credits appear over a series of segments from the ensuing episode—the story’s characters—suspects or victims—each in various moments of stress, pivotal moments you will soon be able to contextualize. Thanks to these almost previews, you know from the beginning if you’ve seen the episode before, so at first it’s confusing when there is an actor who has played a character in another episode. Does s/he make a good criminal? Was s/he the culprit last time? I can never remember. On very rare occasion, they play reoccurring characters. Maybe I should try to guess from the opening scenes who the murderer is. Only sometimes is it the most obvious choice—the unidentified man smoothing the dead girl’s eyes shut, the missing husband.

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