American crime shows are all over French television. “Law and Order,” for example, has long been a staple on various networks here, where it’s called “New York District.” My friend Renaud tells me that it’s been so popular over the years that young offenders who are brought to court sometimes refer to the judge as “Votre honneur,” or your honor, using a translation of the English rather than the proper French address of “Monsieur le Président” or “Monsieur le Juge.”
I know that U.S. and English laws are quite different from French law, of course – though I base my knowledge of this mainly on having watched an excellent French crime series, “Engrenages” (given the title “Spiral” in English-speaking countries). It concerns crime and its aftermath in and around Paris, rather like a grittier French “Law and Order” with much more existential anguish thrown in.
The way in which France deals with crime is surely related to its history. Now, America is in many ways more violent than other countries, including France. And the nature of American violence, or America’s attitude to violence and crime, is a reflection of America’s national character, as much as France’s is to a French national outlook.
France has, in its long history, been occupied more than once by foreign oppressors. The enemy have lived among the French, leading perhaps to an acceptance of a certain level of crime that had become institutionalized by that foreign presence. Following its revolution, France – unlike the U.S. – endured a savage reign of terror. America had its own ravaging Civil War, but religious conflicts through the centuries didn’t tear our country apart as they did France. Such events down the years have doubtless affected not only how the French consider their history but also how they think of violence, of justice or of retribution. Or even the depiction of such things.
In the same way, the French find it difficult to comprehend the size or variety of the United States, with its 50 states, its sometimes-conflicting local and federal laws, its troubled history not only of slavery and reconstruction and lynching and genocidal westward expansion, but its gun culture and its various state methods of capital punishment.
I’ve sometimes been asked to explain to French friends our American ways regarding guns and crime (they think we’re all armed to the teeth), but all I can usually come up with is the French equivalent of, “You have to have been born there,” to begin to understand how different are our attitudes in this regard, even as I assure them I don’t know anyone who carries a gun.
But everyone also has suppositions about violence elsewhere else. My friend Odette once told me during a dinner party that serial killers didn’t exist in France. She insisted that this type of murderer – un tueur en série – was purely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. She refused to change her mind even after other French friends contradicted her by naming several notorious French serial killers, such as Joseph Vacher, “The French Ripper” who slaughtered 11 people in the 19th century or, more recently, Claude Lastennet, who in the early 1990s was convicted of killing five old women, one after the other.
“It’s not our tradition,” she said, firmly.
It might not be an American tradition either, but you could probably argue that it’s not exactly un-American, given how often it occurs there, and how often it propels plotlines.
And while I don’t know if a specific kind of killer is native to France, I do believe that France, having had its own particular history of violence, thinks differently – and perhaps with far less sentimentality – about crime, death and even punishment than does America.
Although I can only observe rather than feel France’s ingrained judicial and cultural suppositions regarding criminality, either at the public or personal level, the French relation to crime and justice drew my attention during my first stay here. In those early weeks I saw plastered around Paris lurid yet elegant posters for a big exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, “Crime et Châtiment,” or crime and punishment.
The show explored crime through art and artifacts from the 18th century to the 20th, mainly in France, but included examples of crime and punishment elsewhere. It had a mix of French classics – David’s “Death of Marat,” for example – and American sensationalism – such as Warhol’s electric-chair silk screens. It also had Goya’s gruesome cannibal paintings, and macabre drawings and charcoals by Victor Hugo. Even a threatening old guillotine that still remained sharp.
But what really drew me (and probably everyone else) were the grisly depictions of real-life violence in all their unnatural gore, especially the sordid you-are-there crime-scene photographs that began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the four-color, illustrated French weeklies with their front-page emphasis on murder and butchery, with drawings even more grisly than what you might see today in a slasher film. Who can resist the siren call of bloody mayhem?
The studies in phrenology on display were also in their way wonderful, heads of the dead, death masks, paintings, calculations and diagrams meaning to explain those murderous impulses as a result of someone’s physical appearance.
For example, after the execution of Giuseppe Fieschi in 1836 for the attempted regicide of King Louise-Philippe, a mold was made from his head and a portrait done of him freshly dead. Experts in phrenology studied both in order to see how the features of his face and the shape of his cranium might have demonstrated signs of his criminal compulsion. Although this kind of research occurred throughout Europe at the time, it seemed particularly French to me, a post-Enlightenment exploration meant to unlock the secrets of the dangerous wayward mind through an individual’s physical attributes.
Perhaps most surprising was the example of one of the lifelike ballerina statues that Degas had created.
It seems that the young dancer’s head was modeled along the lines of a phrenologist’s specimen of a criminal’s skull. I hadn’t known this, and this fact is not necessary for an appreciation of Degas’ art. But it added a little frisson to the representation of a little girl in a ballet pose. Can we assume anything evil about someone, or something, that appears so unthreatening? Can we make any assumptions about what makes a person commit atrocities? Can we judge a national character by its attitude toward crime or punishment? Maybe, maybe not.
What Degas demonstrated to me, however, was a very French matter-of-factness mixed with a subtle French irony in using something related to the fruitless study of criminality to arrive at the enduring sublime.