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Of Madeleines And Butchery: Paris Police 1900

I’ve been spending a good amount of time in Paris 1900. For most of this year, my online reading group of high school friends has been making our way through Proust (The Modern Library Revised English Edition) in this the centennial of Marcel Proust’s death on November 18, 1922.

In keeping with this theme, I’ve just watched Paris Police 1900, a 2021 French-made drama series whose first eight-episode season begins streaming on MHzChoice (MHzChoice.com) on September 20th (you can add MHzChoice to your Amazon Prime Video or other services).

Proust takes you into the salons of high society and explores the consciousness of an artist in the making, exposing hypocrisy and provides lacerating comic portraits of people at all stages of life and all levels of society, including lampooning himself. Proust is a guilty pleasure, an escape into a world deeply felt, with such insight into society and human nature and how our consciousness shifts moment to moment while our deepest held ideas and feelings change over time.

The show conceived, written, directed and produced by the graphic comic artist Fabien Nury, tells the story of Paris and France at this critical time, using actual historical figures, not unlike the book and movie Ragtime did.

“If you thought that La Belle Epoque was a Golden Age that’s because you didn’t live through it,” writes Nury in the show’s press release.

The series begins with the death of France’s President Felix Faure, having died from a heart attack while being fellated by the French courtesan Meg Steinheil. Far-right antisemitic Anti-Dreyfus nationalists and left-wing anarchists consume Paris. The former police chief Louis Lepine has been called back out of retirement to restore order, even as the torso of a young woman is found in a suitcase in the Seine.

The series focuses on Lepine’s attempts to modernize the Paris police force such as installing telephones in precinct offices, having policemen use bicycles, and relying on the deductive skills of a new brand of investigator as well as the biometric scientific evidence of Alphonse Bertillon, most successfully used with regards to fingerprints. There is an ambitious young detective Antoine Jouin, who is not in complete control of his anger and emotions, and Joseph Fiersi, a corrupt detective carrying out the dirty work of the undercover police. Steinheil is blackmailed into service as a police informer to infiltrate the antisemitic Anti-Dreyfusards who are planning a coup.

Both Proust and Paris Police show the French national obsession with the trial of Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason, and convicted based on forged evidence; and how nationalists found in the trial of Dreyfus an excuse to fully vent their antisemitism. Although Proust shows how Dreyfus became a fault line throughout society, in Paris Police we see those who hope to profit politically and financially from French antisemitism.

Lepine’s wife, disaffected from her husband’s obsession with saving France, is a morphine addict who experiments with Heroin and is almost compromised and blackmailed herself. In this demi-monde there are sex parties with masked butchers for women with too much leisure time. At the same time, we see how poverty affects the working class, and the endemic corruption at every level of society.

Proust and Paris Police both show the limited possibilities for women in Parisian society — as prostitutes, courtesans, wives — as household servants or as police informers. In Paris Police, Eugenie Derouand plays Jeanne Chavin, one of the first law school graduates who in 1899 was still not allowed to practice law as an attorney. She is a modern woman who can defend herself (she carries a pistol), rides a bike, and is the prime actor in her own sex life. In Proust, his female characters are negotiating these same dilemmas, some with greater and lesser success.

In both Proust and Paris Police 1900, we see a society and a city in flux, but while Proust takes a madeleine dipped in tea to summon his past, Paris Police uses the butchery of a young prostitute to confront the dark side of a what many call a golden age. Yet each in their own way, are stories where the humanity of its characters is paramount. In both Proust and Paris Police there is an overwhelming belief that despite present evils, in the long run good will triumph.

“When we look back at the horrors of the past,” Nury writes, (and see how our ideals have survived, in spite of everything) we might even find grounds for optimism.”

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