“Des bonbons ou un sort!” – A French idiom used by children while trick-or-treating; literally, “candy or a spell!”
In a previous post, I talked about Mercy Black and Possum, two movies that – like other recent offerings including Hill House and Hereditary – use horror storytelling as a way to talk about family trauma and the ways that it can haunt our lives long after childhood’s end. I wrote that:
…As #MeToo and #TimesUp continue, and as we – as a horror community – strive to add more voices to the conversation, in particular voices that have thus far been kept out in the echoing dark, I suspect that more and diverse examinations of this aspect of the human condition will enrich us all. Horror, by its very nature, offers us unique insights into trauma.
The French web television series Marianne (now streaming on Netflix) offers further evidence of horror’s value as a scalpel with which we can dissect trauma. Marianne is a tense and emotional portrait of small-town life in France. Set in the fictional seaside village of Elden, the 8-episode season tells the story of a horror author, Emma, who returns after achieving success to the hometown she fled as a teen. There, she faces demons both literal and figurative with the help of her old friends, now all grown up and dealing with their own specific threads of darkness; regret, anger, grief, unrequited love.
Wrapped around the dark heart of Elden like a malevolent worm is Marianne herself, the villain of both our story and the stories written by Emma. The series executes a number of technical and narrative-based tricks that I thought were smart, understated, and compelling. I originally only intended to dip a toe into it, but Marianne sucked me in. From Victoire Du Bois’ sharp-edged and introspective portrayal of Emma to examinations of motherhood and what we can and can’t forgive, Marianne has a lot to say about trauma, family, and friendship that is nuanced and worthwhile.
All of that said, I don’t care for the standard-issue Christonormative structure of much of the story – crosses pitted against demons, witches who bring plague and misfortune, etc. The real story of French witch trials and witch-hunters is a blood-drenched nightmare of torture, death, and soul-crushing theocratic totalitarianism, not an adventure story in which the Catholic Church is – for all its warts – the hero, and witches and Satanists the monstrous villains, as though we aren’t real people, members of the same community that surrounds the prickly Emma with love and acceptance.
Given the longstanding tradition of “the witch” as one of the primary avatars of Halloween and all things spooky in America (along with vampires and mummies), I don’t expect the popular American conception of witch-as-villain to change easily. Based on Marianne, France has a long distance to travel in this regard as well. Between Marianne and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which I have also written about, Netflix now undeniably has a few questions to answer regarding their feelings about minority religions like Wicca and Satanism. A film like 2015’s The Witch: A New England Folktale might ultimately take a view of witchcraft that is – at best – mixed, but at least it’s portrayal of 17th century Puritan mores and family life was historically accurate, interesting, and didn’t make the Puritans out to be martyrs, victims, or intercessors on behalf of the Almighty.
Just as Marianne never leaves empty-handed, however, I didn’t come away from Netflix’s latest horror offering with nothing of value. If you tune out the god vs. witch claptrap, it’s a series worth watching – and makes me curious what other French horror offerings I’m missing out on. If you’d like to bring any to my attention, at me or leave a comment below.