Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / France produces some superb television, but you could be forgiven for entertaining skepticism about L’Art du Crime, which at first blush scans as one extended meet-cute: a tough, dyspeptic, and uncultured flic is in the doghouse and gets assigned to the “cultural property” investigative unit of France’s Judicial Police. He’s paired with a flighty, cheerful art historian from the Louvre retained as a consultant to help solve art-related felonies, including theft, forgery, and murder. She is complicated, alternately inspired and oppressed by her father, a legendary art historian, and she suffers from devastating bouts of vertigo. The cop, to his chagrin, turns out to be her counter-phobic object, alleviating her dizziness by his mere presence. While the set-up seems precious, thanks to a deft balance of comedy and jeopardy, stylishly brisk direction, and winning portrayals, L’Art du Crime works beautifully.
Playing the hard-nosed cop, Captain Antoine Verlay, is the fine Belgian actor Nicolas Gob. In Un Village Français, the historically poignant and timelessly relevant TV epic about French collaboration and resistance during the Nazi occupation, Gob was brilliant as Jean Marchetti – a wicked Vichy policeman, striving, ill-tempered, and instinctively sadistic, with the occasional glimmer of grudging humanity. Verlay is superficially similar to Marchetti – same cynical mien, tight lips, darting eyes, and gruff irritability – but he tilts away from rather than towards sociopathy. Crucially, Verlay is also emotionally inhibited, which yields aching sexual tension between him and the far more outgoing and eager art maven Florence Chassagne, warmly and ebulliently rendered by French actress Éléonore Bernheim.
If the potent romantic chemistry recalls the Tracy & Hepburn classics, the jaunty, lighthearted tone echoes ABC’s Robert Wagner vehicle It Takes a Thief from the late 1960s, right down to Philippe Duclos’ masterful turn as Florence’s imperious and urbanely neurotic dad, which corresponds to Fred Astaire’s role as the eponymous thief’s elegantly larcenous father. L’Art du Crime, however, has a more ambitious intellectual arc. The series aims to present famous artists themselves as flesh-and-blood human agents – in judiciously measured doses of magical realism, Florence converses with da Vinci, Géricault, Watteau, Monet, Fragonard, Courbet, and Degas about their worldly motivations – and to show how art derives from and infiltrates real life. For all its playful contrivances, this artful show takes art seriously.
L’Art du Crime, created by Angèle Herry-Leclercand Pierre-Yves Mora, produced by France 2. Streams on MHz Choice through Amazon Prime.