Emma Larsimon (Victoire Du Bois) is a famous author who has spent 10 years writing a series of young adult horror novels featuring a brave young witch hunter Lizzie Larck and the evil witch that dogs her every step, Marianne. Bored senseless and desperate to write for “grownups” Emma controversially kills off her most famous creations. We first meet her at a book signing where her contempt for both her novels and the eager audience there to meet her is palpable. But her life is upended when an old friend from the small town she grew up in crashes the book signing with a strange tale that her mother is possessed by the spirit of Marianne. One shocking death later and Emma is on her way home. But things have changed in Emma’s hometown of Elden. Marianne is back and she’s very angry that Emma has stopped writing…
Never has a show worn its influences so clearly on its sleeve. Famous alcoholic author, whose creations may/may not come to life, is forced by a tragedy to return to the small town which they left after a devastating childhood trauma, to confront an ancient evil which has taken over the town. Sound familiar? Swap out Elden with Derry and you practically have the storyline from IT with shades of The Dark Half and Duma Key thrown in for good measure. There’s even a “Losers Club” in this case “The Shipwreck Kids”. I had to stop the series at one point to check out that Stephen King wasn’t actually involved with the series. Marianne is It by way of The Exorcist and The Thing.
The familiarity of its storytelling isn’t a drawback (and indeed should be a boon if the series is remade-I’ve never seen a show so primed for a US remake. There’s nothing inherently French about its blockbuster-style storytelling). Marianne is the strongest horror series I’ve seen in years. Far scarier and more unsettling than the more feted likes of American Horror Story (which is fun but veers wildly towards camp) or the likes of The Purge series.
The show is perhaps the strongest in it’s opening few episodes. There is a feeling of unreality, a slow-burn sense of creeping dread as Emma is forced to return home to a town that is actively hostile towards her. There is a sense of innate wrongness about her interactions with her parents that set your teeth on edge. The shows most valuable player (after it’s marvellous leading lady Victoire Du Bois) is Mireille Herbstmeyer who is a marvel of casting. She is completely terrifying. With her elastic face, huge round, bulging eyes and whiskey and cigarettes voice which sounds like something long dead being forced to speak she is far more terrifying than any jump scare or CGI creation. The sight of her gazing fixedly at our heroine with her unnerving smile makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. She’s a brilliantly horrifying creation and the show does lose something once she ceases being centre stage.
Du Bois as Larsimon is wonderful. One of the things I love about Larsimon is that she is a complete and total mess. She’s a deeply contrary personality. On the one hand brave and self-sacrificing. On the other, an alcoholic fuck up and self-centred narcissist who thinks nothing of trying to steal another woman’s husband. Emma is a complete mess. Loved and reviled in equal measure Du Bois keeps you entirely on board all the way through even if Emma is not the most loveable of souls. It’s the sort of anti-hero role so easily given to a man and it’s nice to see a woman play the role of “alcoholic fuck-up who has to save the world” for once.
The series relies a little too heavily on jump scares, creaking wardrobe doors and terrifying spectres only visible in mirrors. None of which lessens the power of Marianne as a new entry into the world of memorable horror villains. Marianne did not come to play ladies and gentleman. She’s here to bring misery and ruin to all and she’s utterly unrepentant about it. So often in horror movies/series they show a softer side to the villain or reveal that he/she wasn’t really a villain after all. Really not the case here. Marianne is just plain vicious and pure evil. Her back story is completely horrifying. The childhood trauma buried in Emma’s past is almost unbearable to watch and features the single most terrifying toy ever seen on screen. Never mind Chucky -this monkey thing is the stuff of nightmares. The bright shine of the eyes and rictus stillness of those possessed by Marianne is deeply unsettling. Marianne is here to murder everyone you hold dear and laugh about it while she does so.
It’s not all perfect. Emma and Marianne dominate proceedings to such an extent that it’s hard for anyone else to get a look in. The Ship Wreck Kids are introduced too late in proceedings and are too thinly characterised for us to truly care about any of them. Camille (Lucie Boujenah, Emma’s plucky assistant who definitely has a huge crush on her) vanishes from the narrative too early. The cop (Alban Lenoir) sent to help Emma is portrayed in this awkward jaunty way (complete with weird music cues). He seems pitched as the geek comic relief but it’s a portrayal which jars badly as it clashes with the tone of the piece overall. Marianne’s desperation for Emma to continue writing also isn’t fully explored.
Sadly it doesn’t quite stick the landing. The series makes the critical error (as so many do) of going full CGI in a key moment and naturally rendering it as unscary as possible as a result. The final showdown between Marianne and Emma is also something of an anti-climax given the horror unleashed up to that stage.
Still, just when you think it’s all been wrapped up nicely there’s quite the vicious sting in the tale. After all, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Marianne is a spine-tingling, nerve-wracking horror tale featuring a memorably evil villain and a killer turn from Victoire Du Bois as Emma.
Don’t be tempted to watch a dub by the way – French language with English subtitles is the only way to go.
Marianne is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.