NOTE: This is a review based solely on the first two episode of the six-part French Netflix series "Black Butterflies". Perhaps, I will post a thorough review after concluding watching this show in its entirety.
Dismal and at times revolting, Black Butterflies (original title: Les Papillons Noirs) is the latest French crime TV show released on Netflix and succeeds in striking a chord with its blatant cynicism, oozing from both the story and the characterization, and sickly atmosphere. The two men who created, directed, and written this show, Olivier Abbou and Bruno Merle, attempt a dive into the dark abyss of the human psyche as manifested through the characters' twisted criminal behavior and the commitment of atrocities that stand out due to the viciousness involved. Mrinal Rajaram summarizes concisely the story's main theme in her review, which was published on the cinemaexpress.com website (www.cinemaexpress.com) on October 16, 2022, and that is nothing else than the machinations of human nature's darkest recesses. She writes: "The black motivations of the human heart may not be understood entirely and that is what the story symbolizes". The series narrate the story of a deranged couple that spread mayhem across several countries during several decades as told by the only survivor of the two, the man, who is now in an elderly age and facing the impending doom of his own demise because of a terminal disease. Albert Desiderio (Niels Arestrup) contacts a once promising literary talent, Adrien Winckler (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who never quite managed to solidify the success of his debut novel and cement his reputation as a well-respected young author and is currently suffering from a severe case of writer's block, forcing him to ghostwrite the stories of others for a living. Albert asks Adrien to write his memoir that will focus on his love story with Solange (Alyzée Costes) and chronicle their common life throughout time.
What initially seems as a first-class opportunity for Adrien to rekindle his hopes for a successful new book, instantly vaporizes as Albert, speaking in a sluggish, confessional tone, reveals to his listener that he, along with Solange, committed a string of murders spanning several countries and many decades. Feeling dumbfounded by Albert's words, Adrien's first reaction is to feel offended as he assumes that his host thinks that he is going to take him for a ride, telling him a grotesque, completely implausible story for some unfathomable reason. He leaves Albert's house but after a brief research on some cold cases involving some of the names Albert had mentioned, he starts to believe that the extraordinary tale that he heard in Albert's house may hold water. So, he returns to finish his job and record the old man's account of his shared life with Solange that includes the serial-killings of many men who had the misfortune to cross the couple's path. At the same time, in the present timeline, we are watching Adrien ploughing through life, facing both professional and personal challenges that keep cropping up, amplifying his insecurities and blurring his judgement. His marriage with Nora (Alice Belaïdi), an epigenesist, is tested under the weight of their commonly desired goal to have a child, something that has certain repercussions for the couple's relationship and adds another stress factor for Adrien who still grapples with feelings of inadequacy, chiefly derived from his short-lived career as an author, and issues concerning his perception of self-identity and worth.
The show adopts the dual timeline narrative effectively, something that is not always the case with other productions of the same genre, with extensive flashback sequences capturing Albert and Solange's moments in time during the far past, including the murders that they jointly committed. The murder scenes are visceral and disturbing, eliciting feelings of revulsion and distress by the audience who is watching the murderous couple's frenzied rampage that seems to continue undisturbed by the authorities for several decades. The past timeline is accurate and detailed in the representation of life in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, for example the scenes taking place during the 1970s are brimming with bright colors and wild partying, typical traits of that era, thus providing extra validity to the narrative and being indicative of the show's high production values. Fortunately, the back-and-forth transitions in time occurring in the first two episodes are smooth and feel natural, with the viewer never getting confused as to whether it is present or past at any given time. So far, the story consists of two distinctive narrative threads, divided by a different timeline. However, the creators move forward to a threefold division of their storyline, with the third and final sub-plot taking place also in the present, along with Adrien's arc, and features an enigmatic police detective, Carrell (Sami Bouajila), who seems to have followed the strand of cold cases involving brutal murders during the past decades and is now ready to connect the final dots and pinpoint the culprit. Carrell's sub-plot is not given much screen time and the creators interject some pithy snippets that are meant to prepare the audience for his future role in the overall story's context.
The first two episodes, of about one hour each, flow smoothly despite the deplorable subject matter and the viewer is instantly drawn into the show's fictitious universe, without, however, rooting for any of the main characters as, apart from Albert who is abhorrent for easily understandable reasons, none of the story's other agents let the audience feel any sense of kinship for them. That is a direct consequence of the overall grave tone set by Abbou and Merle that doesn't want the audience to empathize with the show's characters as this would undermine the foundation of the production that is, as I already mentioned in the beginning, the worst that the human behavior has to offer. In both the first and the second episode, we learn some things about Adrien's past and family history, either by him directly telling Albert some things concerning his personal history that involves addiction and incarceration or by plain exposition, watching Adrien interact with members of his wider family (uncle and cousin) and witnessing the barely concealed resentment that simmers underneath the dialogues between them. Those plot threads will definitely provide the basis for an intricate narrative that will attempt to merge all the different plot strands into one and somehow Adrien's life will collide with Albert's in some way that cannot be foretelled at that point, having watched only the first third of the show. The diverge timelines and perspectives make for a richer brand of storytelling, proving that it is not a privilege of the Scandinavians to employ such styles with success.
Niels Arestrup delivers a profoundly esoteric portrayal of Albert, a performance that resembles in terms of strength of that given by the seasoned French actor in the acclaimed 2009 prison drama A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard. His rendition of the character of César Luciani in that film is considered as Arestrup's milestone acting achievement throughout his long career. Nicolas Duvauchelle, who began his career as a male model for global brands such as Levi's and Hugo Boss, proves once again that he is one the forefront of the most talented French actors today with a truthful depiction of a complex character who, nevertheless, feels utterly human in his phobias, contradictions, and desires. The scenes that Arestrup and Duvauchelle share are the most intriguing as their interaction is always charged with something reminiscent of tension, without ever evolving to something more palpable or sinister, illustrating the significance of solid acting in the success of any cinema or television production. The show's tone, mood, and characterization brought to my mind the work of an American crime writer, Donald Ray Pollock. Pollock also features despicable characters in his gritty novels and his name became wider known through the adaptation of his most popular work, The Devil All the Time, into a feature film by Antonio Campos in 2020. For those who haven't watched this film, it would be a nice follow-up watch after Black Butterflies, consistent with the French show's intentions, theme selection, and character outlining. This is a series that will not appeal to those who are faint at heart and is destined for the more hardened crime fiction fans who don't mind a certain level of vileness in the books, films, or TV shows that they choose to relish.