For most artists, the idea that their work is only complete once there is an audience to interact with is axiomatic.
In the world of literature, you have novelists like Ruth Ozeki singing how fiction is forever a joint effort between writer and reader: “When our minds connect, our hearts open, and our tones begin to resonate with the words on the page, the result is a collaboration , a co-creation, a book that we cannot deposit.” In the world of the visual arts, you have on the one hand 20th century theorists like Walter Benjamin who wrote treatises on the idea of will have– that is, the almost supernatural sense of authenticity that a work of art can take on when viewed by an audience – and on the other hand, working contemporary artists like the watercolourist Kristi Grussendorf saying bluntly that “success is when [a] the painting has its own relationship and its own conversation with the viewer.
And in the world of entertainment? Well you have celebrity. Which, if fiction is a story that a reader and a writer invent together, and art is the place of an almost supernatural aura to which only the act of looking can access, then fame – it i.e. the reality of a person not only being incredibly famous, but having established such a spectacle of a public image that it is read and analyzed as closely as any great work of art is all this and more.
At least that’s the premise that creator Dominique Besnehard and showrunner Fanny Herrero were working from when they developed the award-winning French comedy series. Call my agent! (in France, Ten percent), which takes as its subject not only the humorous inner workings of a Parisian talent agency, but also the private vanities and equally laughable anxieties of the very real French celebrities its fictional agents work with.
With Camille Cottin, Thibault de Montalembert, Grégory Montel, Liliane Rovère and Fanny Sidney in the hard core of the fictional agency ASK, Call my agent!– whose entire series is streaming for American audiences on Netflix – begs the question, what if France’s brightest artistic lights could read their stardom as the text it is and play with it in a totally fun and new? In other words, what if French celebrities could develop a (public) sense of humor about their own image?
To an American audience, this question might seem absurd. There is, after all, nothing the American celebrity loves more than gazing lovingly at her own reflection: Julia Roberts playing Julia Roberts in Ocean 12. James Van Der Beek playing James Van Der Beek in Don’t trust the B in Apt 23. Keanu Reeves plays Keanu Reeves in Always be my maybe. Nic Cage playing Nic Cage in The unbearable weight of massive talent. Everyone plays in Episodes. Everyone plays in Calm your enthusiasm. Everyone plays in Hollywood’s Real Husbands. Everyone playing, even, in sesame street. At this point, the “as oneself” line of credit is practically a rite of passage when it comes to American stardom.
But like Call my agent!Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin), the dog’s favorite boss, notes in a 2021 interview with Irish weather, it has not been the same historically for French celebrity. “It’s not a French tradition at all,” Cottin told the newspaper, contextualizing the difficulty the French series had in recruiting big French names for the show’s first season. “We tend to think of ourselves as artists, and self-mockery or self-parody is not something that comes naturally to us.”
And yet, Call my agent! was finally able to book the the best of the best of French celebrities. In the first short season of the series alone, Herrero and his team managed to attract Cécile de France, Line Renaud, Françoise Fabian and JoeyStarr. At the end of its fourth (and final) season, this list of famous artists had grown to include Juliette Binoche, Guy Marchand, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Dujardin, Jean Reno, Nathalie Baye, NBA star Tony Parker, and – although not surprisingly, given American celebrities’ dedication to the self-satire described above – Hollywood legend Sigourney Weaver, who had fallen so deeply in love with the show’s early seasons that he she signed up for the project without reading a single page of the screenplay proposed by Hererro.
Rather, Britain’s view of sending its stars to stardom is rooted in a sort of fallibility of everyone else.
What finally convinced these serious French artists of themselves Call my agent!is the cause? According to Cottin, it was the irony and tenderness with which Herrero’s team treated both the history and the artists of French cinema. But you don’t have to be a cinema specialist to understand that beyond taking seriously the art to which big names like Renaud, Binoche and Dujardin have attached their personal and professional reputation, the fact that Call my agent! unafraid to treat its stars’ stardom like the texts they are, does some really heavy lifting, inviting both actor and audience into the kind of auratic collaboration that brings all narrative art to life.
Deliciously, Call my agent!The understanding of celebrity as text proved so successful that it was reconceptualized to many markets; indeed, it is about to officially exceed SCAM for most international adaptations (from nine to SCAM’s Seven). The most recent market to get the Ten percent to bump? Well, from its global debut last weekend, it would be the UK, where W1AJohn Morton took the French model and, using his signature rat-a-tat style, turned it into something thoroughly (read: awkwardly) British.
Echoing the original title of the French version, ten percent (a reference to the cut agents traditionally take from their clients’ paychecks) features Jack Davenport, Lydia Leonard, Maggie Steed, Prasanna Puwanarajah and Hiftu Quasem as the main players behind the half-restless agency Nightingale Hart, and follows, in its first season, many of the same storylines as its Gallic ancestor. And where ASK represented luminaries like Gerard Lanvin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nightingale Hart counts Helena Bonham Carter, David Oyelowo, Kelly Macdonald, Hamish Patel, Olivia Williams, Emma Corrin and Dominic West.
Convincingly, while the French have perhaps, as Cottin argues, been historically reluctant to do something so awkward as parodying their own celebrity by playing fictionalized versions of themselves for laughs, Britons have long since mastered the art. What is Red Nose Day, after all, if not a 34-year-old send-off of a whole country’s comic stardom?
But where the Brits are experts in form, their devotion to self-satire isn’t grounded in the same navel-gazing (so entertaining) narcissism found in Hollywood. On the contrary, by being as distinct and literally removed from the shining myth of Hollywood perfection as it is, the British position on sending its stars to stardom is instead rooted in a kind of fallibility of the whole world. world. This is a self-reading that Morton ten percentin its first season, bends at every turn, but it’s perhaps most cheeky in Episode 3, in which Dominic West (as Dominic West) finds himself in a production of Hamlet which has the titular character so obsessed with his own image that he constantly documents it, in real time, with his smartphone, the images he takes throughout his monologues exploding into a triptych of screens the size of of a cinema behind him as they reach the cloud.
Both Call my agent! and ten percent make their audience aware of their complicity in the mythologizing of celebrity itself.
West of ten percentThe vision of absolutely hates this, his own incessant image distracting him to panic (a problem that, naturally, only his longtime agent can solve). As for what the real-world West might think of such a project? Well, that’s the question of the hour. As celebrity scholar Anne Helen Petersen notes in her writings of the seismic power shifts that have changed the very idea of celebrity over the past several decades in the (mainly American) cultural landscape, How? ‘Or’ What a star’s celebrity text is publicized. When said mediation occurs in the cover of a glossy magazine, the text is organized until boredom; when it’s hyped by a star’s own social media, it’s polite to a mythical shard.
“Contemporary celebrity is boring because celebrities — and, more importantly, the platforms and franchises that control them — are too powerful,” Petersen wrote in a recent post about a “throw” New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong who, by barely rising above the innocuous, managed to stoke the protective fury of the image of what looked like half Hollywood. “I wish some celebrities would understand this better: that having total control over their image is also taking all the thrill and interest out of it, the very core of their charisma and charm.”
So what happens when fame is hyped by the writers room of a project like Call my agent! or ten percent? As the above list of self-satirical American projects so aptly underscores, this is something else altogether. Or at least he could to be: handing their celebrity text to a bunch of comedians, West and all the other guest stars of ten percent are – like the gratifying, unserious Hollywood stars Van Der Beek, Roberts and Cage before them – cede just enough control that they invite you back into the very thrill whose absence Petersen laments.
That is to say, what we see when we see West raging, raging at the death of Hamlet’s smartphone camera light may, in fact, not be the least bit representative of the artistic temperament and personal demons of the real West. At the same time, however, the flashing realism of ten percentThe premise of invites its audience to believe that it could be.
Herein lies the power of the “fake talent agency/true celebrity” premise: by forcing their audiences to think about how these vulnerable and goofy presentations of French and British stars contribute to the texts of their actual celebrity, to that time Call my agent! and ten percent make their audience aware, at the same time, of their complicity in the mythologizing of celebrity itself.
And as far as viewing experiences go, it’s just a lot of fun.
New episodes of ten percent drop Fridays on Sundance Now and AMC+, and stream the next day on AMC. The four seasons of Call my agent! are streaming now on Netflix.