By Peg Aloi
The overlapping worlds of ancient Paris architecture, entrenched police corruption, and the criminality of underground internet culture generate some suspenseful plot twists and white-knuckle scenes of terror.
Written by Fred Cavayé and Quoc Dang Tran (screenwriter of the gruesome but glossy supernatural Netflix series Marianne), this six episode crime story debuted in France in 2018 and is now streaming for US viewers on Topic. Starring French cinema veteran Nathalie Baye as a retired cop in a race against time to rescue her missing daughter, Nox features a first-rate cast of actors and a twisting-turning plot that delivers chills and suspense.
The first episode finds police detectives Julie (Maïwenn) and Raphäel (Malik Zidi) on a stake out in Paris, trying to intercept some bank robbers who’ve been using subway tunnels for quick escape routes. We learn something of their personal lives: Raph and his wife are trying to conceive a child, and Julie’s mother Catherine (Baye) has shown up to stay with her daughter after the dissolution of her marriage. The two cops have a breezy, intimate banter, complicated perhaps by unrequited feelings. We learn their partnership as cops might be complicated by their close personal friendship.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s short-term stay with her daughter gets on Julie’s nerves immediately, especially after mom casually accesses Julie’s computer files and finds an unsent resignation letter. Catherine’s retirement from the police force was fraught with drama: her job performance was a mixed bag — excellent instinct and follow up along with faulty communication and overreach. It seems that Julie wants out but Catherine is pressuring her to stay. When Julie is sent literally underground to apprehend the bank thieves, she is whisked away in a flash. The Paris Catacombs are revealed to be a den of illegal activity and a perilous shelter for homeless people and undocumented immigrants.
Julie’s commanding officer Garraud (Frédéric Pierrot) is determined to drop everything to find her, and Raph is frantic to save his partner, but no one is more fired up than Catherine, whose unorthodox methods come into play given that she fears for Julie’s life. Although she has become a bit of an outsider, she uses her badge to gain access and authority within Julie’s department, insisting on doing things her way. It slowly becomes clear that there’s corruption within the police department and it may also threaten Julie’s safety. Catherine and Raph also begin to wonder if their increasingly-desperate efforts to find Julie will make them targets as well. They also discover an unexpected threat: Nox.
Nox is a secret enterprise accessible only from the dark web. Catherine and Raph stumble upon its existence and then enlist the aid of a hacker to help them gain entry. The overlapping worlds of ancient Paris architecture, entrenched police corruption, and the criminality of underground internet culture generate some suspenseful plot twists and white-knuckle scenes of terror, not to mention brilliant action sequences. I was reminded more than once of the dark futuristic worlds of Jeunet and Caro’s films Delicatessen (1991) and the City of Lost Children (1995), the latter featuring secretive mercenaries who carry on a completely unknown existence away from the also-mad world of Paris streets. But there is no fantasy in this series — only far-too-plausible evil and cruelty. The tone feels like a dark crime thriller, but there are elements of existential horror here as well.
The gritty dialogue is a perfect fit for the excellent cast of actors, who make the dark underbelly of the City of Lights pulse with energy and danger. Baye (best known for her role in Catch Me If You Can) is particularly good, conveying Catherine’s toughness and fragility with nuance. She does not shy away from engaging with the reality of being a middle-aged woman in a male dominated profession. Malik Zidi as Raph is also very compelling as a man torn between duty and family. In Catherine’s company, he finds depths of courage and grit he was unaware he had.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.