A French take on the X-Files twenty-odd years before the X-Files, I first saw La Brigade des maléfices in the late ’70s, on some low-rent local TV station. There were only six 55-minutes episodes of the series, and as a kid of ten or twelve I found it weird, baffling, and French. But I was thinking about it this last weekend, and I decided to do a little research on my own.
The basic premise of La Brigade des maléfices (more or less The Sorcery Brigade): there is a secret department in the French police system, that takes care of occult and supernatural events. Underfunded and derided by the colleagues, Inspecteur Guillaume Martin Paumier is an eccentric that occupies an attic in the Paris police headquarters. He can rely only on one assistant, Albert.
The six cases investigated during the only existing season of the show are quite… different:
- fairies kidnapping young men in a public park
- the devil using a pirate TV station to infiltrate the lives of suburban families, driving them to domestic violence
- a woman from Venus visits Paris (astral travel is hinted at) after a swindler starts offering interplanetary vacations to the gullible
- the devil uses a life-like doll to seduce and drive to suicide a number of single men
- a robbery in a blood bank leads to an investigation into modern-day vampires
- the ghost of an 18th century aristocrat haunts an apartment building
As it can be deduced from the list, at least some of the episodes have their tongue firmly in their cheek, but it is interesting how the choice of cases is ample and intersects almost perfectly both the fascination for the occult of the ’70s, and everyday issues like domestic violence, urban alienation etc.
Indeed, one of the elements I found particularly off-putting as a kid and I find fascinating today is the everyday setting of the episodes: suburban apartments, small local shops, public parks. The contrast between the venues of the mysteries and the offbeat look and attitude of the protagonists was disorienting for a kid, but is quite effective in retrospect.
Younger me also resented, I think, the fact that the investigators have very little active roles in the stories. Things happen, and shift from mundane to supernatural. The Brigade is called in. They observe, research, discuss, witness, and finally give the case a very little push in the right direction, making things straight again. When you are in your early teens and a fan of The Persuaders, this is a let down.
Equally interesting to me today is finding out that the bizarre character of Inspecteur Guillaume Martin Paumier was portrayed by a man that was indeed an expert on masonic occultism and the less straightforward aspects of French history: Léo Campion was in fact not only an actor but a freemason, a satirical cartoonist, a pamphleteer and an author of essays, a singer-songwriter. He was expelled from France (and indeed, became a Belgian citizen) after causing the ire, in 1923, of the French right-wing movement Action française. Things got weirder from that point on.
So, an occult detective story with a bona fide occultist in the leading role, mixing comedy and quite sinister elements, and using a suburban landscape as its backdrop – what else do you want?
You can check out the first two episodes, back-to-back, on Youtube. In French. And for some reason I can’t share it here, so please follow this link.