La Garconne, on SBS, is a heady trip through 1920s Paris with flappers and tomboys

Laura Smet in La Garconne, on SBS. Picture: SBS
Laura Smet in La Garconne, on SBS. Picture: SBS

La Garconne (M and MA15+, 6 episodes)

3 stars

Paris in the 1920s might have been home at some point to everyone who would become anyone in 20th century arts, philosophy and culture. Even Ho Chi Minh, the future leader of Communist North Vietnam, was there for a few years, working as a pastry chef while he studied and developing his political ideology.

As wishfully imagined in Woody Allen's film, Midnight in Paris, the 1920s was another belle epoque like the naughty 90s, attracting artists, thinkers and writers like Salvador Dali, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso, not forgetting famous locals like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre who hung out together. Allen managed to weave a cameo role for many of them into his lovely film.

La Garconne, a new six-part series from France, begins in Paris in 1919 at the dawn of this heady decade of artistic foment and social change. It takes its name from the bob hairstyle that became fashionable as women discovered new freedoms in an evolving postwar world. In French, "garconne" has come to mean tomboy.

Series creator, Dominique Lancelot, has said that the birth of populism and the shifting roles of women in society were the themes that she and her team wished to develop in the story of La Garconne. Did she have at the back of mind the fact that French women were not inducted into the police force until 1968? That was 50 years after women were inducted into the police in this country.

Like the outstanding German television series Babylon Berlin, largely set in the following decade but with similar underlying themes, La Garconne involves a young policeman investigating what lies beneath. The underbelly of crime and corruption beneath the hedonistic and boho life of the capital implicates establishment figures in its seamy fabric.

The central character in La Garconne is Louise Kerlac (Laura Smet) a young woman who worked as an ambulance driver during the war, but can't find a job since being demobbed. Her twin brother Antoine (Tom Hygreck), is surely one of the postwar "lost generation", but he aspires to be a portrait artist.

Louise joins the police force disguised as her non-identical brother after witnessing the murder of a family friend. Having left an item of clothing behind at the scene in her rush to escape, she has been framed for the murder and needs to disappear. Her brother Antoine agrees to let her assume his name and the take up his job in the police force, something he never wanted anyway. It is of little inconvenience to him to drop his name and live under his artist's pseudonym instead.

Louise's disguise fools the police department and she sets to work. Inevitably, it isn't long before she uncovers vital information about the crime she is investigating, plus a whole lot more. A serial killer on the loose, a pornography network, and corruption in high places.

Smet, who is the daughter of rock musician Johnny Hallyday and actress Nathalie Baye, has the finely chiselled features to carry off the part of a young man well enough. The voice is just low enough and the gestures just manly enough, and her androgynous figure with breasts bound is hidden inside baggy trousers and jacket. While her slight figure transforms easily to the character of Giselle, yet another identity, that of flapper and good time girl who frequents bars and cabarets as part of her forensic investigations.

In this era of gender fluidity, does Smet need to look entirely convincing as a male? Perhaps not, as wondering how long she can maintain the ruse tends to give the drama a bit of an edge. And she needs to be able to slide between the part of a young policeman by day and flapper by night.

Aside from this element of implausibility, La Garconne is interesting enough and totally watchable - a quality production, made in the best traditions of the period piece of art cinema, with fidelity to time and place. Yet it could have been more playful with its daring artifice, shown more wit and humour. While production values are high, it lacks the fizz and energy of the times it represents.

This story Flappers, tomboys in 1920s Paris first appeared on The Canberra Times.