“No to the end of ‘Plus Belle La Vie’,” read the banner of protester Laetitia Moiroux, who had traveled more than 100 miles to Marseille to voice her displeasure when we caught up with her this summer . She credits the series for turning her life around.
After being bullied as a teenager, it “gave me my confidence back,” the 36-year-old said.
When “Plus Belle La Vie” – which roughly translates to “Life is sweeter” – airs for the last time after nearly two decades this Friday, it will mark the end of a show that was the first and the most durable of its kind in France. Since its debut in 2004, the series has become deeply rooted in public debate and has transformed the way the French view their second most populous city.
At its peak, a weekly audience of 13 million people followed the diverse cast of more or less ordinary characters dealing with life’s challenges – about one-fifth of the total population or the equivalent of nearly 70 million viewers in the United States. United. Families moved their dinner times to make time for it.
The daily soap opera was a success, in part because it often reflected the great political or social debates of the country, but in the comforting setting of a familiar setting and in the lives of characters to whom viewers have become attached over the years. year.
Much of the series was set in the replica of a town square that filled an entire television studio, where characters fought, laughed, and cried. Its bustling café-bar, Le Mistral, looked so realistic on screen that dozens of tourists have tried to locate it over the years in Marseille’s historic old town.
“Unfortunately, we have to explain to them that it doesn’t really exist,” a Marseilles official said in a 2006 newscast. His remarks, however, did little to stop thousands more from trying their luck over the years. who followed.
True fans of the show, however, knew that the bar’s true inspiration was the 200-year-old Bar des 13 Coins in the city’s Panier district.
At the launch of the soap opera, “it was the first time that a series addressed people’s daily lives”, says Laurent Kérusoré, one of the actors.
When France legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 despite fierce resistance, the show’s writers married two of its male characters, including one played by Kérusoré, in what became the country’s first major televised same-sex wedding. At the height of the influx of migrants to Europe in 2016, the show added episodes about the lives of undocumented immigrants in France. And as the cost of living has risen in France in recent months, some of the characters on the show have faced new challenges to make ends meet.
Despite its sometimes polarizing storylines and criticism that it leaned too far left, the series’ appeal has transcended political lines. Rather than lecture viewers, the show gave them a slight push, introducing them to characters they may not have previously felt comfortable interacting with in person. For example, by “showing the small details of their lives”, explains Muriel Mille, sociologist.
And while French cinema still struggles today with the inclusion of non-white characters, “Plus Belle La Vie” early on reflected the multicultural diversity of Marseille, both on screen and in the writing room. , said Mille.
“We really believed that everything had to be revolutionized,” recalls Serge Ladron de Guevara, an executive producer.
Not all staff were immediately convinced.
Although he worked on the series as a sound engineer, Gilles Cabau did not always follow it on television. But when he and his grandmother watched an episode together over Christmas, he realized how much the program was shaping audience attitudes.
“She said to me, ‘That [character] is gay, and he’s with this other man – but he’s nice anyway! laughs Cabau. “The topics we discuss in ‘Plus Belle La Vie’ are not things that she was directly exposed to.”
We encountered Cabau on a hot day in July. It was his last day of work for the series, and the crew was shooting an outdoor scene near the old port of Marseille, with the city’s seaside fortress towering above them. When the final sequence was shot and Cabau lowered his mic, the crew around him burst into applause in celebration of their last day with him.
The daily production routine has transformed the staff into a tight-knit community over the years. “There have been marriages, there have been births, divorces,” said Claire de La Rochefoucauld, director and producer of the series. She estimated the number of babies from couples who met on set at around 45.
The end of the series will not only be a financial loss for her and the 600 others who worked on it. It will also be the end of a national showcase for Marseille.
Despite being France’s oldest city, Marseille’s reputation as a crime hotspot has long made it a priority for tourists and businesses in France. That’s only started to change in recent years, with Parisians moving en masse to the southern beach town and embracing the city’s multicultural and sometimes chaotic identity.
“Marseille, in a way, represents everything that Paris does not have: the sea, the sun, the good mood, the joy of living,” said de Guevara, who believes that his series has helped change perceptions of the audience.
“It’s a bit like a pop song,” adds Pierre Martot, who plays a policeman in the series. “The more you listen to it, the more you get used to it.”
For “Plus Belle La Vie”, this growing familiarity may have been both a blessing and a curse. As viewers became more accustomed to the storylines and rival series offered new and different content, the ratings eventually declined.
Some staff believe the pandemic has accelerated this trend. The show’s producers largely ignored the pandemic in their scripts, even as the country reached a historic and disturbing impasse.
De La Rochefoucauld said the pandemic would have been difficult to fully reflect on the show, given that there was often a six-week lag between production and transmission and the highs and lows of virus waves were unpredictable.
But she acknowledged that when viewers tuned in from their quarantined homes or under nightly curfews, what they saw was “no longer their life”.
When announcing the end of the series, the French public broadcaster spoke of the need for “renewal”, arguing that “viewer expectations and program consumption have evolved”.
De Guevara, the executive producer, felt that the series was not close to being finished. He had encouraged his writers to team up with environmental activists to put climate change at the center of storylines.
“There would have been dozens of other topics to discuss,” he said.