Dante, the Gothic, the Abject, and the Grotesque in Mathieu Missoffe’s Thriller-Crime Drama Black Spot

by Richard Logsdon

 

“…we have no hope, and yet we live in longing.” Canto IV, Dante’s Inferno

 

Abstract

Set in the fictional French village of Villefranche, Mathieu Missoffe’s Black Spot offers both a contemporary version of Dante’s Hell and a microcosmic, Gothicized caricature of contemporary Western society. Upon a first viewing, the episodes of this televised crime drama may seem randomly arranged. However, closer inspection reveals three elements that hold the series together while sustaining the terror, dread and horror typical of traditional Gothic fiction. One of these is Missoffe’s selection of details that steadily build upon what Gothic-horror writer H. P. Lovecraft refers to as “cosmic dread,” in this series the cumulative effect of the graphic depiction of the corpses of murder and suicide victims, of the often barbaric behavior of the townspeople, and of the continued sightings of the Wendigo. A second unifying element is the repetition-compulsion disorder that drives protagonist Sheriff Major Laurene Weiss’ search for Mayor Steiner’s missing daughter Marion. According to Freud, this mental disorder “compels one to consume the same stories, experience the same jolts, behold the same devastating sights” over and over. However, the most significant element is the graphic depictions of the corpses of people who have been murdered or have committed suicide. These depictions are rendered according to an aesthetic that combines the grotesque with the abject and that exaggerate, the terrors, horrors and dread associated with living in a village that Missoffe compares to Dante’s Inferno.

Keywords

gothic crime drama, cosmic dread, grotesque-abject aesthetic

 

Film critics have finally begun to pay attention to the recent made-for-TV crime dramas coming out of Europe.[i] Some of these shows, particularly those from Scandinavian countries, capture a darkness characteristic of film noire. Several others, just as dark, contain elements that align them with the Gothic. Of these, one of the best and bleakest is the current crime-thriller fantasy Black Spot (or Zone Blanche, originally an Amazon Prime series), an eight-episode TV series that represents a joint effort by French and Belgian companies in 2018 (Nurbel).

Season One of Black Spot takes place in Villefranche, a fictitious French village that is set in the middle of a dark and forbidding 15,00-acre forest reputed to harbor a monster and that claims a murder rate six times the national average. In line with Gothic tradition, season one reflects those cultural anxieties that have been generated in response to several cultural phenomenon that have reached crisis proportion in Villefranche and in the contemporary Western world for which Villefranche is both caricature and microcosm. In fact, the most significant crises are variations of two standard Gothic tropes: a tyrannical, even bullying white patriarchy, and women who find themselves marginalized, victimized, and at times brutally abused by members of this patriarchy. Additional anxiety-inducing crises that the series targets include the continuing rape of the environment by capitalistic enterprises, a growing crime rate, an epidemic of mental illness, and the seeming absence of God, once the spiritual and moral center for a Western world that currently seems to be moving toward an almost complete rejection of traditional belief (Trofimov 2, Wells). Indeed, to help call attention to these crises, the series’ creator Mathieu Missoffe has incorporated several other Gothic elements into the script of Black Spot to create a steadily building sense of terror that verges on dread: a protagonist haunted by terrifying memories, a gloomy forest setting where the rays of the sun penetrate only the tops of the gigantic pines, a series of uncanny events, and a monster, presumably a demonic Wendigo[ii] with a craving for human flesh (“Wendigo”). Complimenting his series’ Gothic dimension, Missoffe has woven into his script an analogy comparing Villefranche to Dante’s Inferno, where the condemned must spend eternity separated from the transforming light and love of God. Indeed, Villefranche is offered to the viewer as a Gothicized caricature of a contemporary Western world recalls the Hell of Dante’s own Inferno.

At first, season one’s episodes may seem randomly arranged. Each is a tale of mystery and horror, complete in and of itself and takes place in a “savage wilderness” (Dante, Inferno, Canto I, l. 93). The episodes’ seemingly hap-hazard arrangement may in fact reflect a popular contemporary world view that sees no order or purpose to existence.iii Even so, closer inspection reveals at least three elements that help hold the series together and contribute to sustaining the terror, dread and horror typical of traditional Gothic fiction (Radcliffe). One of these is Missoffe’s selection and arrangement of details that steadily build upon what Gothic-horror writer H. P. Lovecraft referred to as “cosmic dread,” in this series the cumulative effect of the graphic and ghastly depiction of the corpses of murder and suicide victims, of the often barbaric behavior of the townspeople, and of the continued sightings of the Wendigo. A second element that contributes to sustaining the series’ growing dread is the repetition-compulsion disorder that drives protagonist Sheriff Major Laurene Weiss’ search for Mayor Steiner’s missing daughter Marion. According to Freud, this mental disorder, common among characters in works of Gothic horror, “compels one to consume the same stories, experience the same jolts, behold the same devastating sights” over and over (Hutchings 71). However, the most significant element may be the graphic, revolting depictions of the corpses of people who have been murdered or have committed suicide. These haunting depictions are rendered according to an aesthetic that combines the grotesque with the abject to emphasize, even exaggerate, the terrors, horrors and dread associated with living in a village that Missoffe compares to Dante’s Inferno.

 

Cosmic Dread

The sense of “cosmic dread” that the series awakens has its basis in the fears and superstitions of people who, in ages past, believed in and feared the demonic side of the supernatural. This level of intense dread is characteristic of the “weirdly horrible” Gothic literature that H.P. Lovecraft addresses in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story, where formalism or the author’s knowing wink the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer , unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint , expressed with a seriousness and pretentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign or particular suspension of defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and of the daemons [sic] of unplumbed space (107-108).

 

The one scene confirming Missoffe’s intent to create and sustain this intense level of dread comes at the end of episode two and occurs in the office of the town’s young Mayor Steiner. Hanging from one of the office walls is a painting that shows a lone man standing in snow in a darkening forest. Positioned in front of the painting, the mayor’s father Gerald asks his son, seated at his desk across the room, “Is the man out for an evening walk, or is he lost and afraid? The darkness is falling, and something watches and awaits from the trees.” The mayor does not answer. Indeed, the questions posed by the father creates an ambiguity, or an obscurity, that Fred Botting and eighteenth- century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke have identified as a key element in Gothic literature (Burke 58-61, Botting 170-171). Thus, the viewer may wonder what the man is doing out in the woods. If the man is afraid, then what does he fear? At this point in the series, the viewer has no idea what the man is doing in a darkening forest, clearly an allusion to the enormous forest around Villefranche and to the Inferno’s “shadowed forest” (Inferno, Canto I, l. 2), nor does the painting provide any clue to clarify what the man is doing there and what this “something [that] watches and waits from the trees” may be. Perhaps Missoffe also intended for this scene to reveal a duplicity on the part of Mr. Steiner, a villainous man whose reference to the “falling … darkness” suggests his awareness that a disaster of possibly dreadful proportions awaits the town and people of Villefranche. At the very least, Missoffe uses the words of Gerald Steiner to appeal to the viewer’s fear of the unknown, a fear that over the centuries has become “an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue” (Lovecraft 106).

 

The Sheriff

Throughout this series, much of the dread that viewers experience is generated, vicariously, by Sheriff “Major” Lauren Weiss, a stern, expressionless female from whose position most of the series unfolds.[iii] Indeed, whatever Laurene sees is filtered through the dread that she has experienced as an effect of the horrors that she encountered as a teenager and that she must encounter as sheriff of this darkened region. The dread generated in Laurene by atrocity after atrocity, most visually rendered, adds a level of dreadful urgency to the sheriff’s unrelenting search for the Mayor’s missing daughter Marion, the story-line for which constitutes the series’ central plot. As the story goes, Marion disappeared sixty days before District Attorney Frank Siriano arrived in Villefranche and during “initiation night,” a local ritual requiring local teens who have turned eighteen in the past year to spend a night alone in the supposedly Wendigo-haunted forest. Indeed, Laurene’s search is driven by at least two obsessions that, in turn, fuel her compulsions.

One obsession is Laurene’s haunting and inescapable recollection of her own initiation night twenty years before. On that night, likely terrified by rumors of the creature, she was kidnapped by a “woodsman” (whom she does not or cannot identify), chained to a mountainside, and left to die screaming for the help that did not come. The ordeal that Lauren experienced has contributed to shaping the character of the compulsive, unsmiling woman that she has become. (In fact, to insure her survival, Lauren used a sharp stone to cut off two fingers from her left hand and free herself from the manacle binding her to the mountain.) Additionally, this experience constituted Laurene’s own rite of passage into the hellish and therefore terrifying and horrifying dimension of Villefranche. In spite of this ordeal, perhaps because of it, Laurene displays unrelenting determination in her search for Marion Steiner and in her fight against the “falling … darkness” that threatens to consume not only the mayor’s daughter but that manifests itself in the town’s unusually high murder rate.

However, Laurene’s constant, often uncontrollable replaying of the memories of her three nights of horror, combined with her search for Marion Stein, provides the foundation for another possibly inexplicable compulsion, this one to drive the dark and lonely road leading from Villefranche (again and again, always at night), return to a particular spot in the forest, and apparently search for something lost. According to Steven Bruhm, “What becomes most marked in contemporary Gothic—and what distinguishes it from its ancestors—is the protagonist’s and the viewers’ compulsive return to certain fixations, obsessions, and blockages” (261). Bruhm adds that this compulsive return “center[s] on … the problem of a lost object, the search for which … usually has a psychological and symbolic dimension to it” (263). In a series played out in the darkened world of a gigantic forest, Laurene’s compulsive return to this one spot is treated with ambiguity, for it is difficult if not impossible to determine what Laurene has lost and what she thinks she is going to find. Likely, she is searching for Marion—or clues that might reveal what really happened to the mayor’s daughter. The possibility does exist that she may not be looking for anything—or that she is looking for something that she is not supposed to find. After all, on one of her visits, Mayor Steiner follows Laurene to this spot, an action that Laurene misinterprets as a rendezvous with a former lover and one that raises the likelihood that there may be something at this place that the mayor does not want Laurene to find. However, given the psychological dimension of the series, perhaps the most plausible explanation for Laurene’s long and lonely drives to this one spot in the forest is that she is seeking to recover that part of herself which now lies buried beneath the mountain of the seeming indifference that has afforded a defense against the horror and dread generated by past experience and by the many visually rendered atrocities, embodied in the corpses of murder and suicide victims that she encounters in series one.

The other obsession-driven-compulsion that fuels Sheriff Weis’ search for Marion and ultimately contributes to the series’ building dread is her desire to reconnect, romantically, with Mayor Steiner, whom she has known since high school. Indeed, the script reveals that the Mayor has used an on-again, off-again affair with Laurene to keep her from discovering his and his father’s plot: to shut down the local lumber plant, replace it with a local quarry for storing barrels of toxic waste (and, in the process, supposedly insure the village residents of a new source of income), and possibly bring to Villefranch other money-making enterprises. At first, Laurene refuses to acknowledge what the viewers cannot fail to see: Mayor Steiner’s own duplicitous involvement in projects that will threaten to destroy Villefranche and that stand in bold opposition to the safety and well-being of the people and the village that Laurene must protect. In fact, to Laurene, a single mother in need of male companionship, finding Marion will undoubtedly cement her relationship with the Mayor, who is married to another woman whom he does not plan to leave. The alternative is something she dreads: to live out her life alone, her deputy Teddy Bear, a gay male, and her rebellious teenage daughter Cora as her only companions. Thus, in the third episode, at the Mayor’s request, Laurene feels compelled to risk her own life and that of her deputy Teddy Bear in descending into a seemingly bottomless labyrinth of caves. Initially in search of a mystery woman named Natalie Duval, Lauren instead finds—or think she finds—a frantic Marion Steiner bound to a wall of stone and frightened to the point of hysteria by a creature that inhabits the abyss. Laurene sets Marion free, only to watch as the mayor’s daughter flees from the sounds of the coming monster and into a network of caves. That Laurene is the only one who hears or sees Marion at the bottom of the caverns, and that Teddy Bear claims that he saw and heard nothing, becomes problematical; indeed, the script treats Laurene’s encounter with Marion with an ambivalence suggesting that the sheriff of Villefranche may suffer from a lingering psychosis. In other words, the viewers are left with the possibility that, in finding the mayor’s daughter (or in thinking she has done so), Laurene has suffered a hallucination inspired by the three horrifying nights that she spent chained to a mountain twenty years before Marion’s disappearance. If it is Missoffe’s intent to use this scene to show Laurene’s mental instability, then the hysteria that verges on madness that the imaginary Marion seems to experience is a projection—or replaying–of Lauren’s own memories of her three nights of terror. In this sense, Lauren’s descent into the caverns becomes a metaphor for her descent back into her own inescapable personal hell, in this case memories of the three nights of horror that she spent chained to a mountainside.

The probability that Laurene may have experienced a delusion becomes even more likely in the eighth episode. In this final episode, Laurene finds the dead Marion Steiner in a swamp contaminated by a toxic waste that has prevented her corpse from decomposing. In fact, the coroner’s report sets the probable date of Marion’s murder at some time before the sheriff’s descent into the caverns. Again, toward the end of the eighth episode, now driven by the need to know the truth about the mayor and by the suspicion that the mayor has been using her, Laurene stumbles upon a large quarry pit containing the beginnings of what promises to become a huge toxic-waste plant, one that the mayor and his father plan to supervise. This discovery validates Laurene’s suspicion that the mayor has been carrying on an affair with her only to prevent her from uncovering a project that will contaminate the drinking water, drive the inhabitants from their homes, and increase the Steiners’ wealth and power. But the discovery is followed by the series’ ending horror, as Laurene is shot to death by her deputy Camille, who has been given the task of eliminating both Marion and Laurene, possibly to cover for the mayor and his father’s nefarious schemes. With the murder of a sheriff devoted to fighting the “falling … darkness” that threatens the area, the demonic Wendigo fully emerges, possibly in response to Laurene’s murder and signifying the termination of any semblance of law and order in the Villefranche region. Laurene’s death and the creature’s emergence reinforce the dread that a catastrophe of monstrous proportions, a clear manifestation of the “falling… darkness” that Gerald Steiner referred to, awaits the town of Villefranche and, possibly by extension, the Western world for which the village is both caricature and microcosm.

 

Dante, the Abject and the Grotesque

To sustain the sense of terror and dread, Missoffe inserts into his script the series’ key analogy according to which Villefranche, as a microcosm of the contemporary Western world, has become a version of Dante’s Inferno. In the first episode, district attorney Frank Siriano observes to Laurene and Teddy Bear that Villefranche reminds him of Dante’s seventh circle of Hell, where the souls of those who committed suicide are condemned to spend eternity imprisoned in gigantic trees. The second, perhaps more significant allusion comes later in episode one. In this scene, Laurene finds Frank seated at a table at the Eldorado bar, his nose buried in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Curious, Laurene reaches across the table, grabs the book, and looks over what Frank has been reading. In response Frank quotes directly from the first Canto of Inferno: “When I had journeyed half of life’s way/ I found myself within a shadowed forest/ for I had lost that path that does not stray” (ll.1-3). The passage certainly applies to Frank, who has lost his way professionally—he has somehow offended his superiors—and has been sent away from an unnamed larger city and to Villefranche (a dead zone where cellphone-contact with the outside world is nearly impossible) as a form of professional chastisement. However, the passage is more applicable to Laurene, who, like Dante’s character in Inferno, is journeying into a netherworld of growing darkness. Seemingly locked in this dark world, and twenty years after her kidnapping, Laurene is still searching for a way out of a personal hell consisting of recurring and unbidden memories of her three nights of terror and, just as significantly, her regular and seemingly unending exposure to the corpses of murder and suicide victims.

The graphic depiction of these victims, their deaths almost always a form of punishment, reveals an aesthetic that combines the grotesque with the abject to emphasize that Villefranche is indeed a version of Dante’s Hell.  According to Julia Kristeva, the abject involves

[a] massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, as familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. A “something” I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I recognize it, annihilates me. (2)

Jerrold E. Hogle adds that the presence of the abject represents “the return of the repressed familiar in ‘the uncanny’” (7). For its part, the grotesque magnifies the horror of the abject. According to William Yates, co-editor of The Grotesque in Art and Literature,” the grotesque “most often embod[ies] distortions, exaggeration, a fusion of incompatible parts in such a fashion that it confronts us as… strange and disordered, a world turned upside down …,” an observation certainly applicable to Dante’s Hell. Yates adds that “[the grotesque is] an embodiment of demonic and sublime forces….” (2-3). Roger Hazelton reinforces Yates’ definition when he writes, “No discussion of the grotesque in a theological perspective would be adequate if it omitted reference to the demonic,” whose presence is clearly established in Inferno (78).[iv] Indeed, Missoffe’s purpose in using grotesque imagery in Black Spot seems roughly equivalent to what Dante had in mind in writing Inferno: to emphasize the presence of the demonic, the perverse ugliness of sin, manifest in this TV drama in barbarous acts driven by an “insane anger” (Inferno, Canto XII, l. 49), and the absolute hopelessness of ever experiencing the transforming power of the light and love of God, Whose presence fills Dante’s paradise (Millbank 157-158). In summary, the cumulative effect in this series of merging the grotesque with the abject, in this case the corpses of those who have been murdered or taken their own lives, confronts observers, and certainly Laurene, with “a severe violation of [their] sense of moral, natural, and social order…” and threatens viewers with fears of their own annihilation (Hogle 14). Indeed, the sense of horror generated by these images of death “depends…on [the viewer’s] intuitive sense of order in the world” (Tallon 39)—and the recognition, certainly in Missoffe’s series, that morally and spiritually, Villefranche and the Western society for which the village is an exaggerated representation have become a Hellish place that has been turned “upside down.”

In Black Spot, scenes merging the grotesque with the abject capture a dread and horror that have reached epidemic proportion in the fictional Villefranche and that roughly correspond to a level of anxiety in the Western world that Villefranche symbolizes. For example, in the first episode, Laurene encounters in the perpetually darkened forest the corpse of rookie nurse Sandra Chevrier. Chevrier has been murdered, then hanged from a tree that bleeds. By the time Laurene and Teddy Bear find it, the corpse is barely ten hours old, its eyes already pecked out by the omnipresent crows, creatures that find their counterparts in Dante’s “foul harpies … that utter their laments on the strange trees” (Inferno, XIII, 10-15). The nurse’s defiled corpse thus becomes a grotesque symbol of ultimate abjection (Creed 40); monstrous but dead, this woman has been cast off as so much detritus, is no longer recognizably human, the annihilation of her person bringing to the viewer’s mind an image of their own inevitable extinction This visual image of Sandra Chevrier is thus an example of “the repressed familiar” that Hogle refers to as the “[terrifying] annihilation of self”(14).

The story behind the nurse’s hanging reveals the grotesque, even damnable natures of those who participated in the murder and who, like most everyone else in Villefranche, are condemned to living out their lives in a village that, like the Inferno, no one ever seems to leave. In fact, the twisted story of what supposedly happened to Sandra Chevrier creates an ambivalence and ambiguity that, in turn, sustain the series’ steadily building dread. Apparently, Sandra had recently assumed responsibility for taking care of her former boyfriend, the comatose and mute Bruno Walter, his unblinking, wide-open eyes possibly signaling a recognition of the horrors of living in this village and reinforcing Carol Clover’s emphasis on “looking as the avenue of horror” (167). Reduced to the level of the abject, Bruno is little more than a living corpse, one who has been kept barely alive in his parents’ living room by a breathing machine. Apparently, five years before Laurene and Teddy Bear discover him in his parents’ house, Bruno joined the nurse’s brother Dmitri in raping Sandra in the corner of the gigantic lumber mill that the Steiners shut down in the first episode. Possibly overcome by remorse, Bruno then attempted to hang himself from the tree from which Sandra Chevrier’s corpse was hung. However, that Bruno tried to take his own life out of remorse or that he alone was responsible for his hanging, while seemingly substantiated by a police report, remains a mystery to Laurene, Teddy Bear, and the viewer. The key to the case is Dmitri, who has been driven nearly out of his mind by the overuse of drugs, presumably to erase his guilt. As Laurene holds him and prevents him from dying, Dmitri finally confesses to raping and murdering his sister and then hanging her corpse from a tree for threatening to publicly reveal the names of her rapists. Clearly delusional, reduced to a grotesque caricature of his former self, Dmitri embraces a paranoid fear that the immobilized Bruno is coming after him. Indeed, the theory, entertained by Laurene and Teddy Bear, that Sandra planned to pull her patient’s life support as a form of retribution, combined with the possibility that Bruno’s parents may have participated in Sandra’s murder to save the life of their comatose son, is not entirely implausible, particularly among a people condemned to a contemporary version of the Inferno.

Throughout Black Spot, the abject and grotesque are almost always associated with the punishment that women undergo for crossing an invisible line established by the community’s ruling white patriarchy. This punishment, generally in the form of savage murders and suicides, is a recurring act in the darkened world of Villefranche and finds its parallel in Dante’s Hell, where the condemned must suffer eternal retribution and often carry with them an “inhuman [and]insane anger” (Inferno, Canto XII, ll. 33, 49) that finds its reflection the mad rage behind most of the violence in Missoffe’s series and much of the violence of the Western world. In the third episode, for instance, the viewer learns that the Fuchs brothers, two simple-minded farmers, have executed Natalie Duval, a young woman who conveniently disappeared after escorting one of the Fuchs brothers into the labyrinth of caverns where Laurene supposedly found Marion Steiner tied to a wall. The truth of the matter seems to be that Natalie seduced both brothers with the intention of getting them to sell their parents’ farm and so erase their mountain of debt. Apparently, she had also seduced several other males in order to defraud them and take their money. Thus, not satisfied with taking Natalie’s life, the Fuchs brothers hung her now decomposing, darkened corpse from a make-shift cross overlooking what was once their farmland, the repulsive and eyeless corpse representing another combination of the abject and grotesque and symbolically revealing a spiritually and morally bankrupt region, and finding a parallel in the ninth circle of hell, where those guilty of fraud are forever condemned to Malbroge, “an abyss, a broad and yawning pit”(Inferno, Canto XVIII, ll. 1-4).

In fact, most every episode in this series targets a murder or a suicide, the remains of which are graphically rendered in grotesque-abject manner. In a particularly disturbing episode, the wife of the coach of a local high school swim team, a man who has received praise from the community for pulling a young woman from a burning car, puts a shotgun into her mouth on the night that her husband is honored by the mayor and the community. With no hesitation, she pulls the trigger, blood spattering the walls of her hotel room and her eyeballs winding up in her mouth. The wife’s suicide is clearly intended as an act of vengeance and punishment directed toward a husband who has used his position to seduce/rape some of the female members of the swim team in a cabin that is surrounded and inhabited by “a dreadful swarm/ of serpents” (Inferno, Canto XXIV, ll. 82-83), the presence of which constitutes an allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden and possibly suggests that Laurene is in a place that is the counterpart to, or a version of, the circle in which Lucifer, named Dis in Dante’s work, feasts off those who have most grievously sinned (See Inferno, Canto XXXIV). Indeed, the episode certainly reveals the perverse and diabolical character of the swimming coach, an old friend of the Mayor and one who has no hope of redemption. Again, in the last episode of season one, in the company of sheriff’s deputy Camille, Laurene’s teenage daughter Cora finds the deceased Marion Steiner’s flash drive in some contaminated swamp water, near the place where Laurene found Marion’s corpse. The flash drive, one of the most important “lost” items in the series, contains information that would reveal the Mayor’s compromised and duplicitous character. Camille pulls a gun, demands that Cora hand over the device, and suddenly finds herself attacked by hundreds of crows, a distraction that gives Cora the opportunity to run the deputy though with a long, sharp piece of drift wood. Grotesquely rendered, Camille dies impaled on the large piece of wood holding her up in a small body of contaminated water.

Laurene herself provides the series’ final example of the blending of the grotesque with the abject. After she murders Laurene, Camille discards the sheriff’s corpse by tossing the it down a mountainside and into a tangle of bushes, thus reducing Laurene to the level of the abject. In the final scene of the series, the demonic Wendigo fully emerges in the forest, and Lauren, her corpse embraced by roots and branches that the sentient forest has sent forth presumably to heal her, returns to life as her eyes suddenly burst wide open. Laurene’s return from the dead may be somewhat ominous particularly if one considers this uncanny, supernatural, even grotesque phenomenon within a pantheon of movies and TV shows that have been influenced by the zombie craze. Italian director George Romero’s films The Night of the Living Dead, The Dawn of the Dead, and The Day of the Dead have been credited with inspiring the countless flesh-eating zombie shows that have found an enthusiastic acceptance in Western culture. With the possible exception of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection, people who return from the dead as zombies are generally the ghastly effect of a post-apocalyptic disaster, like a world-wide nuclear war. Beyond this, it is difficult if not impossible to determine what Missoffe had in mind beyond providing viewers with a shocking ending intended to carry them to the next season.

Missoffe thus combines the grotesque and the abject to capture the horrors of the continuing victimization of women not only in Villefranche but, by extension, in the Western society for which the village is a microcosmic caricature. Indeed, the central cultural crisis—or social evil–that Missoffe calls special attention to in this series is the continued abuse of women. To further emphasize the horror of this continuing victimization, Missoffe also incorporates into the first season scenes that depict women in bondage: thus, considered “grotesque” because she amputated two of her fingers, Laurene is punished for an unnamed infraction by being chained her to a mountainside for three days and nights for a crime that is never revealed; later, Laurene seems to discover a hysterical Marion Stein (likely a projection of the sheriff) bound to a stone wall and terrified nearly to the point of insanity by the demonic Windigo; even later, Laurene’s daughter Cora, tied to a chair, suffers kidnapping, abuse and humiliation at the hands of her boyfriend Ramon, who justifies his mistreatment of Cora as a method of finding whether she sides with his group of eco-terrorists or with the of mayor and his followers; and, finally, the village coroner is forced to suffer painful humiliation as, for no apparent reason, her wrists are bound to a post of the bed on which she used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to breathe life into a badly wounded outlaw, who suddenly died as she began treating him. Within the context of a series in which the setting is compared to Dante’s Inferno, the barbaric act of placing women in bondage must have as one of its sources a demonic dimension filled with those dark and conflicting impulses that find some level of gratification in controlling, subduing, even punishing females who just might cross the imaginary line created by the ruling patriarchy (Kuznetsova 281). Indeed, the scenes just cited enable Missoffe to make the point, powerfully, that the women of Villefranche and, by extension, the women of the Western world, have suffered and will continue to suffer dehumanization, marginalization, and abjection at the hands of an often self-seeking, “barbarous”[v] male patriarchy.

 

Notes Toward a Conclusion: The Final Horror

The first series of Matthew Missoffe’s Black Spot effectively creates and builds upon an almost tangible dread, the cumulative effect of the terror and horror that Laurene seems to take for granted. It is this building sense of dread that, episode after episode, allows Missoffe to draw the viewer into this very dark fantasy-crime-thriller. In the process of doing so, he targets those social evils that have provoked fears and anxieties in the Western world: the continued victimization of women by an abusive patriarchy, the continuing rape of the natural environment; an increase in violent crime, drug-abuse that has reached pandemic epidemic proportions, and rampant mental illness that is manifest in most of the series’ characters, whom Missoffe himself regards as disturbed (Nurbal).

Indeed, Missoffe has given his viewers a Gothicized series in which the terrors of living in Villefranche, a contemporary version of Dante’s Hell and a microcosm of the contemporary Western world, are exaggerated to the point of grotesque caricature. In this series, Gothic terrors

activate a sense of the unknown and project an uncontrollable and overwhelming power which not only threatens the loss of sanity, honor, property, or social standing but the very order which supports and is regulated by the coherence of those terms. (Botting 7)

At the core of the terrors and horrors that characterize life in Villefranche and that find a parallel in the anxieties that have gripped the Western world that this small village represents lies a level of despair that verges on a form of madness. Indeed, the despair that grips not only Villefranche and but the Western world it represents may have its ultimate source in the absence of God.

Interestingly, perhaps typically, Missoffe treats the problem of God’s seeming absence with ambivalence. In the series’ first episode, after Frank Siriano observes that the village has no church, Laurene responds that, in the 15th century, the village sent for stone that would be used to build the edifice. She adds that a storm sank the vessel carrying the stones, the church was not built, and now, more than 500 years later, Laurene is left with the conclusion: “We are alone.” Laurene’s somewhat ambiguous observation reveals a fear of abandonment that, for the sheriff of Villefranche, has as its source not only in the three nights that she spent, alone, chained to a mountain side, screaming for help and left to die, but in the history of a town that God seems to have abandoned or forgotten.

In fact, Laurene’s observation “We are alone” reflects a larger desperation or longing that has so infected the residents of Villefranche that they no longer seem able to recognize it. It is a desperation, born of despair and dread that characterizes those condemned to live in the Inferno and will never know the light and love of the God alluded to in Dante’s Paradiso. More importantly, it is a desperation that has infected the larger Western world that Missoffe had in mind when he gave Amazon Video service the rights to stream Black Spot to an “international” audience (Stewart). In the current world, this hopelessness born of desperation and longing—which psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl labels “sociogenic neurosis”(140) —is more likely to lead one to the psychiatrist’s office that to the church. In this sense, the final and ultimate horror for Laurene, for Villefranche and for the Western world it represents may be the absence of God. Indeed, the analogy that informs Missoffe’s script, that Villefranche is a contemporary version of the Inferno, provides a ground for Laurene’s ambiguous statement “We are alone” and for the conclusion that God has apparently separated Himself from a Western world that, morally and spiritually, has lost sight of its center. Like Yeats’ falcon, this world seems, at times, to be frantically spinning out of control and in a descent into an Inferno of a “new barbarousness” that characterize those condemned to Hell, that characterized Dante’s thirteenth century Florence for which the Inferno is a microcosm, and that characterizes Missoffe’s twenty-first century Western society.

Indeed, Missoffe’s work offers little hope of change or redemption for either Villefranche or the larger world it represents. It is this hopelessness that provides another foundation for the almost tangible dread that steadily builds through the series’ first season. Finally, it is a dread that the viewer experiences vicariously through Laurene’s confrontations with an evil that most effectively manifests itself in the corpses of murder and suicide victims, each graphically rendered according to an aesthetic that combines the grotesque with the abject, and that emphasizes the absence of God. In short, what series creator Matthieu Missoffe offers the viewer is a Gothicized, grotesque and even dreadful depiction of a fictional French village that, as a contemporary version of Dante’s Inferno, reflects to the point of exaggeration the fears and anxieties created by several social evils that are afflicting, and may continue to afflict, Western society.

 

ENDNOTES

i. See the following articles, most of them summaries: “5 Swedish Crime Dramas You Should Watch Right Now.” culture trip.; Cook-Wilson, Winston. “Nordic Noir: An Obsessive’s Guide to the Best Scandinavian Crime Shows.” Spin. April 2018; Forshaw, Barry. “This winter’s best European TV crime dramas,” Reader’s Digest, Readersdigest.co.uk N.D; Hansen, Toft, Kim Peacock, Steven Turnbull. European Crime Drama and Beyond. Palgrave Film and Media Studies. 2018, www.palgrave.com; Keeley, Joe. “The Eight Best Nordic Dramas to Watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime.” Entertainment. MUD. 1 March 2019; Livingstone, Josephine, “The New Wave of European Crime Drama on Netflix,” The New Republic. 16 February 2017; Nakamura, Reid, “23 Foreign Crime Dramas to Stream on Netflix, From “Luther” to “Border Town,” The Wrap. 16 June 2017; Nelson, Alex, “15 of the best European TV thriller series on Netflix,” Inews.co.uk., Wed. Feb. 28; Paiella, Gabriella, “I Can’t Stop Watching European Crime Dramas,” The Cut, 17 Jan. 2019; Vincentelli, Elisabeth, “11 Great Foreign Police Shows to Stream Tonight.” NYTimnes.com.

ii. My conclusion that the monster in Black Spot is a Wendigo, a demonic spirit with a craving for human flesh, has two bases. The first is Missoffe’s two comic-book set titled The Curse of the Wendigo. The second is that Missoffe’s Wendigo bears an uncanny resemblance to the Wendigo of NBC’s recent adaptation of Richard Harris’ Hannibal series.

iii. In his The Open Work, Umberto Eco argues that the form of a given literary work, or of a particular kind of literary work, generally reflects the prevailing world view of the culture in which the work was written. “In ever century, the way that artistic forms are structured reflects the way in which science or contemporary culture views reality. The closed, single conception in a work by a medieval artist reflected the conception of the cosmos as a hierarchy of fixed, pre-ordained orders”(13).

iv. Several reviewers have commented on the fact that Lauren Weiss rarely, if ever, smiles. If we use Dante’s Divine Comedy as a subtext for Black Spot, we learn from Paradiso that smiles reflect the transforming by the love and light of God. Those condemned to the Inferno, on the other hand, like those who never leave Villefranche, are forever separated from God, their grim expressions revealing this fact. As grotesques, those condemned to the Inferno—as well as those who dwell in Villefranch—are incapable of changing.

 

 

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