Home Theatre: Marianne - A bewitching brew of horror
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Marianne, streaming on Netflix
A craggy coastline with a lighthouse off the shore; a sleepy town with houses painted a ghastly white. We've seen this location on screen before and know immediately that it will be home to horror. But for all its predictability, it is still an effective setting for the genre. There's something about such a place, especially when filmed a certain way, that is quite unsettling. That sense of unease is key to a good horror story. Not jump scares, not gore — though these can contribute to that feeling — but creating a certain disquietude in the audience.
Marianne, the Netflix original French horror series, takes place in a town called Elden which has that craggy coastline and lonely lighthouse. And Marianne is quite effective and extremely unsettling. We are introduced to this coastal town around the middle of episode one when our protagonist, Emma Larsimon, is summoned back to her hometown, through a rather gruesome means, by an old friend's mother, who claims to be the titular Marianne. As Emma explains to her assistant Camille, who accompanies her to Elden, Marianne is a witch deprived of a body who possesses people and does horrible things through them. The one thing Marianne cannot do is lie about her name (this characteristic is used to good effect later in the series). Though Emma claims to have created Marianne, she has, in fact, had recurring nightmares about the witch since she was a child — nightmares which only stopped when she started writing her Lizzie Larck horror book series. Lizzie is her own creation who is meant to fight off Marianne. However, the nightmares begin again now that Emma has decided to stop writing the Lizzie Larck books and move on to something else. With these nightmares, and through other means, Marianne tries to persuade Emma to write again. And not just at some time in the future, but before a specific day — a Tuesday.
The show starts off on a grim note and keeps its mood throughout, only lightened now and then, as when Emma meets her childhood gang of friends — the Shipwreck crew, so named because of their favourite hangout spot. These friends and their relationships are our anchors. As too are Camille and Inspector Ronan who comes to investigate a series of baffling events. As we slowly get to know these characters, we grow to care for them, and consequently, for their safety too. This is another hallmark of a good horror story. Creating characters whose fates we are actually, truly invested in. This is essential for that feeling of dread to intensify when it seems likely that something could happen to them, and to elicit that gut-wrenching reaction when something does, in fact, befall them. Marianne does this well too. While the pure terrifying horror dissipates a bit after the initial two or three episodes (and let me tell you, they truly are frightening, thanks in large part to the incredible actor, Mireille Herbstmeyer, who plays the aforementioned mother of Emma's friend), the series still holds our attention through these characters. They may not all be likeable all the time — Emma, in particular, can be quite exasperating, though we later come to find out why — but they are still sympathetic most of the time.
Another way the show holds our interest is by slowly feeding us information and filling us in on the backstory over the course of these eight episodes (it holds certain cards close up until the very last episode). This and the character-building are both possible because the length of a television series affords the makers the time for a slow build up. On the flip side, this long runtime affects the pure horror aspects. The scary portions get a tad predictable because of repetition, and thus less effective. That said, even when I stopped staring in horror at my screen, I still found myself holding my breath through a lot of the show due to the connect I'd formed with these characters.
While the writing and performances deserve due credit for making this show as good as it is, the filmmaking deserves just as much applause. The camerawork, sound, music, editing (the brief, miss-even-if-you-don't-blink cuts are particularly neat) are all on point. I also quite liked the brief recaps at the beginning of each episode, and the use of turning pages of a book (one of the Lizzie Larck books) to denote the passage of time as well as to serve as a transition between scenes.
Marianne did not give me any nightmares, but I will be a bit nervous around lighthouses, especially in the dark, for at least a little while. Mirrors too. And definitely wary of quiet towns along a ragged coast with crashing waves.
Only season one of Marianne is out now, and the show ends on a (somewhat obvious) note that clearly makes way for a sequel. I'm a little concerned that multiple seasons might stretch this story too thin, but one more season should work. Someone who has seen the show, described it to me as "pretty fun." Not exactly the words I would have used, to be honest, but on second thoughts, that actually is a good way to describe it. If you are a fan of the horror genre, Marianne really is pretty fun. And what better way to spend Halloween than by watching a series such as this?