Totems : ‘Canneseries’ Review – A Romeo And Juliet-esque Romance Set In The Cold War Era
Even if you are not a fan of the romance genre, you can appreciate the beauty of the now-iconic “Love at First Sight” scene in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Leonardo DiCaprio is looking at the aquarium, unaware of what is going to happen next. And just like that Claire Danes floats into the frame. Their eyes lock for a brief moment. But then they look away, trying to pretend that they’re observing the fishes, whereas all they want to do is look at each other. Finally, they stop pretending and say more with their eyes than us mortals can say via words. Totems (2021) low-key recreates the scene with a French and a Russian spy and a replica of a Moon between them, thereby setting the stage for a unique love story.
Directed by Jérôme Salle, Antoine Blossier, and Frédéric Jardin, and written by Olivier Dujols, Juliette Soubrier, François Uzan, Thibault Valetoux, Julien Anscutter, and Sabine Dabadie, Totems is set in 1965 in the midst of the Cold War. It follows a French scientist, Francis Mareuli (Niels Schneider), who has a dark past due to his father. He is recruited by Charles Contignet (Lambert Wilson, The Merovingian himself!) to look into top-secret documents about a Russian satellite/weapon that is already being surveilled by the French Intelligence and the CIA. Simultaneously, we get to know about Lyudmila Goloubeva (Vera Kolesnikova), the daughter of Boris Goloubeva (Aleksey Guskov) i.e. the Russian scientist behind the satellite/weapon that is under surveillance. She aspires to be a pianist but is recruited by the KGB to keep an eye on her father.
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Usually, spy thrillers such as Totems are made to help viewers draw parallels with some specific present-day situation e.g. a surveillance state. It is something that the series does by showing how two countries can virtually wage war for no reason and then use it to bypass various personal and professional boundaries to keep an eye on one’s own country-folk. And if you are aware of what’s happening in countries like the USA, India, China, Russia, Thailand, etc., you will realize that it is exactly what the series is critiquing. But more than the spy-related hi-jinks, Totems is more concerned with the people caught in the middle of this turmoil. If we are being specific here, the show is actually more concerned with the “technically enemies to lovers” romance between Francis and Lyudmila and how it transcends the war-like situation.
Schneider and Kolesnikova’s chemistry is truly electric. Their solo scenes are interesting and the two, act the hell out of them, truly diving deep into the dilemma of doing “anti-national” activities. But the moments where they are together are so dreamy and full of romantic tension. Antoine Sanier, Nicolas Loir, Axel Cosnefroy, Alex Lamarque, and Renaud Chassaing’s colour palette for Totems are incredibly muted.
Sometimes it looks all black and white. However, while shooting the love birds, they manage to introduce color, thereby visualizing their interest in each other. Be it through street lamps along with the rain-drenched streets of Berlin, just like Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) or the miniatures in the planetarium, just like Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016). Mike Fromentin, Gregoire Sivan, Romain Boileau, Cyril Nakache’s editing, which often juxtaposes dialogue from the near future along with visuals building up to that interaction, gives their bond an even more dreamlike feeling. And then you’re made to feel wrong about it through Francis’s wife, Anne’s (Ana Girardot) story.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Anne’s whole journey is symbolic of the more human, day-to-day issues in the world. It’s not as suave as the espionage that France, Russia, and the USA are partaking in. It is not thrilling. It is taxing. And although there is someone waiting around the corner to ease the pain, the toll it takes is far more than a flesh wound caused by a gunshot. Her plot does seem a little out of place initially. But as the episodes go on, the intention behind Anne’s story becomes very clear.
In fact, it doesn’t just re-contextualize the show but the genre it belongs to as well by making you think about the consequences of the actions of the protagonists. Actually, this is a change that is slowly happening in terms of storytelling, with movies like Bridge of Spies (2015), The Courier (2020), I’m Your Woman (2020), and even No Time To Die (2021) to a certain extent, grounding these grand narratives in realistic scenarios. So, it is great to see that a show from France is joining this much-needed trend.
Totems is an intricately crafted show where the amount of attention dedicated to its production design, costume design, VFX, and SFX matches up to the shifts in language and the dialogue writing as the narrative shifts from one country to another. It functions perfectly as a Cold War-era thriller. But there’s a fair chance that its romantic plot is going to have more of an impact on its audience. Its star cast deserves all the applause for their performances, especially Schneider, Kolesnikova, and Girardot, for truly giving their hundred percent to make their characters’ period-accurate sensibilities seem palpable. And here’s to hoping that the show inspires more storytellers to use genre tropes to comment on present-day atrocities instead of simply glorifying them.
Totems was screened at the Cannes International Series Festival
Original Title: Totems
Written by: Olivier Dujols, Juliette Soubrier, François Uzan, Thibault Valetoux, Julien Anscutter, Sabine Dabadie
Directed by: Jérôme Salle, Antoine Blossier, Frédéric Jardin
Photography: Antoine Sanier, Nicolas Loir, Axel Cosnefroy, Alex Lamarque, Renaud Chassaing
Editing: Mike Fromentin, Gregoire Sivan, Romain Boileau, Cyril Nakache
Music: Guillaume Roussel
Cast: Niels Schneider, Vera Kolesnikova, José Garcia, Lambert Wilson, Ana Girardot
Broadcast: Amazon Prime Video