Interview with series creators Pierre-Yves Mora (scenarist) and Angèle Herry-Leclerc (scenarist); producers Isabelle Degeorges (Gaumont Télévision) and Arnaud de Crémiers (Gaumont Télévision); and distributor, Cécilia Rossignol (EVP International Sales and Development at Gaumont), about The Art of Crime, which has been nominated for an Export Awards 2021 in the drama category. The fourth season of the series recently launched on France 2, in May 2021 (with 4,9M viewers and 18,5% audience share for the Van Gogh episode and 5M viewers and 20,1% audience share for the Toulouse-Lautrec episode).
TV France: The art world is an original backdrop for a police series. How did you have the idea?
Isabelle Degeorges: It all began in 2011. We had just launched our TV work at Gaumont, and Christophe Riandee (DGA Gaumont) and I met the teams at the Louvre– we immediately wanted to work together.
That was also the moment when we thought about approaching France Télévision with a police series that would renew the genre.
Very quickly, I thought of asking Angèle Herry-Leclerc and Pierre-Yves Mora (with whom I had worked on a series set in the archeology world) to work on what was at the time just an idea: police investigations within the art world.
TV France: The Art of Crime is based on the pairing of crimes, luckily fictional! – and some real works of art. How do you reconcile fiction and reality?
Pierre-Yves Mora and Angèle Herry-Leclerc: Fiction and reality work together based on a simple principle: as far as artists and their work go, we respect reality and proven scientific facts scrupulously by doing a lot of research upstream. That is both the promise and the ethic of the series: you learn a bit about art while also being entertained. In terms of the crime plotlines, fiction and imagination are front and center, and only the realism of the human emotions depicted are of interest. For example, our handling of the Art and Antiquities Unit (in French, the Office Centrale contre le trafic des Biens Culturels – OCBC) is a far cry from reality. In real life, they never deal with homicides. In fact, the only rule for the police part of the drama is that it must be entertaining and effective in showcasing the reality of the artists and their works. To do that, we have to find a new legal aspect each time that drives forward the investigation thanks to the historical knowledge of Florence Chassagne. There are two points of entry: either we decide on an artist or a work and then we find an idea for a crime, or we do the opposite and first have the crime idea which we then use to showcase a piece or an artist that we choose afterwards.
TV France: The series is also based on the strong partnership between Florence Chassagne (Éléonore Bernheim) and Antoine Verlay (Nicolas Gob).
Pierre-Yves Mora and Angèle Herry-Leclerc: Beyond the interest of the police stories, that is one of the essential elements to make drama entertaining in the long term. You have to become attached to the characters in order to follow their stories across multiple seasons. Their relationship is based on a tried and tested romantic comedy principle: a man and a woman who seem completely opposed but who are unconsciously attracted to each other. The viewer is the only one that can see their true feelings for each other, and that can create a wide range of comic situations all centered around the same question: When will they finally get together? That’s what we – among ourselves – call the Moonlighting principle – a reference to the fantastic 1980 TV series starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd. Beyond this dramatic principle, we were lucky to find two actors who perfectly understood their characters: the slightly offbeat art historian and the raw-around-the-edges cop who knows nothing about art. Éléonore and Nicolas love working together. The pleasure we take in writing and the joy they find in acting our texts contribute hugely to the series’ success.
TV France: The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay… what are the constraints and difficulties of filming in these kinds of locations?
Arnaud de Crémiers: One asset of The Art of Crime is the gorgeous settings, in museums and other places. Over four seasons, we have visited Paris’ Opéra Garnier, the Moulin Rouge, the Père Lachaise Cemetery and The Place Vendôme, among others. Rather than being a constraint, they create artistic and logistical challenges. We start each new season asking: what amazing location will we set up our cameras in this year? It’s stimulating for the writing and direction. But it is true that these locations create specific issues that we have to overcome. For certain spaces that aren’t used to hosting film crews, the first contact can be long and complicated. Often, access is restricted. The museums are public spaces and can let us in only on days when they are closed to the public. Worse still, at the Opéra Garnier, we had to film at night so that we didn’t disrupt performances. All that creates extra costs that we have to absorb. But over the four years of making The Art of Crime, we have noticed that it is less and less difficult to convince prestigious heritage locations to let us in. The series is known now, and that is our greatest asset.
TV France: Obviously, they don’t only create constraints and difficulties…
Arnaud de Crémiers: The Art of Crime is built the same way as a lot of recurring series – we use studio settings (particularly for the police station) and natural settings. Natural settings are essential as they raise the series’ production values – they give it a more artistic and heritage feel. Without that, we wouldn’t have the special look we’re aiming for. And it’s also a dream come true to film in places like that. Everyone enjoys them – the writers, the director, and the public! I also think that showcasing France’s heritage sites helps with international distribution.
TV France: The series was an immediate success in France right from the first episodes broadcast on France 2. How do you explain that?
Arnaud de Crémiers: I think the series’ success comes from its ability to update the police series genre by presenting investigations within the art world. It’s original, previously unseen, and that makes us stand out and gives us appeal. Far from being a boring painting lesson, The Art of Crime offers us the keys to understand our artists while staying entertaining and fun. And we mustn’t forget our investigative dynamic duo, Florence Chassagne and Antoine Verlay played by the talented Eléonore Bernheim and Nicolas Gob. On the one hand a slightly zany historian, on the other a cop who is completely closed off to the art world. They make an unlikely couple – which is attractive, amusing and touching. We all hope the same thing: that they’ll finally realize they have more in common than just an investigation to conduct together. And while we wait for them to have that epiphany, we can enjoy Florence’s neuroses and Antoine’s lack of culture – all of which makes us feel a lot better about ourselves!
TV France: Season 4 is full of intrigues and evolving emotions.
Pierre-Yves Mora and Angèle Herry-Leclerc: As we have explained, we always need to find new crime ideas to showcase the artists. In the episode about Van Gogh, for example, we used the idea of two American biographers who believe that Van Gogh did not commit suicide but was killed accidentally. We used this hypothesis in the plot, and it was the artist who, in this case, became our victim – the center of a criminal investigation! The episode about Toulouse-Lautrec is like a sister episode to that one, but this time the artist is our suspect in a murder in the past that has consequences for a murder in the present day. It was all made up, of course. We took care to have our art historian, Florence Chassagne, explain that Toulouse Lautrec was incapable of murder and that she didn’t believe it for a second!!
Regarding our characters’ romantic story, we used a wedding to renew the Moonlighting concept: Antoine Verlay marries someone else, but the viewers know that it’s a mistake and that he should be with Florence Chassagne. She cannot accept the marriage wedding and is ready to do anything to make him see reason and stop the wedding. We were able to immerse our heroine in some funny and complicated situations that feed into both the romantic and comic aspects of the series. Florence continues to love the police captain and he continues to be oblivious. As long as we haven’t got everything we can out of a situation, we continue to explore it!
TV France: Beyond its success in France, the series is also a big success internationally, and season 1 has just been nominated for an Export Awards in the fiction category for the second year running.
Cécilia Rossignol: Yes, The Art of Crime was a hit right form the first season in many countries, which brought us an Export Awards nomination in 2020 and another this year. We are thrilled by this latest nomination which recognizes the series’ success among numerous international buyers (ZDF Neo, Fox Crime, NHK, TVP, Cosmote TV, TVR, Canal 22, TV3, YLE TV1, to name but a few) and their viewers, who are very fond of our duo. Our clients await the launch of each new season, and the series now airs on every continent.
TV France: How do you explain this international success?
Cécilia Rossignol: The Art of Crime brings together several genres with great finesse: it is both crime and “feel-good”. There’s no violence, no blood and no touchy subjects. The series meets a need for good police stories that also have an interesting relationship between characters with a season-long development arc. That chemistry, a sort of romantic tension, in the Chassagne/Verlay pair is there right from the first episodes. That’s a major source of success for the series.
There is also the discovery – or rediscovery – of some great paintings, which adds a cultural aspect, of course, but also creates a kind of escapism that is very appealing – especially at the moment. Viewers the world over never get tired of seeing Paris and watching stories that link back to famous places like the Louvre and Giverny. It’s a real “awareness halo” that we make the most of during pitches.
TV France: And I believe you have exciting great news to share about the next steps for the series…
Arnaud de Crémiers: Absolutely! We are currently filming season 5. Two new adventures directed by the talented Léa Fazer (Maestro, Mystères à, etc.) will lead us to discover the artists Camille Claudel and Eugène Delacroix.