TV: Black Butterflies

If you can look past its inherent, excessive depravityand it ain’t always easy—there’s an awful lot to admire about Black Butterflies. This intricate French thriller combines the bloody trappings of Nordic noir with Hitchcockian psychosexual themes, delivering an unpredictable, elegantly plotted mystery. Adrien (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a novelist struggling to follow up on his acclaimed first novel, takes a job helping an elderly retiree named Albert (Niels Arestrup) chronicle his life story. It starts simply enough, as Albert (played in flashback by Axel Granberger) relates meeting his great love, Solange (Alyzée Costes), with whom he forms a loving, protective relationship. Their life takes a drastic turn when, in self-defense, they become murderers—but it’s a traumatic event they find unnervingly habit-forming. As Albert’s story becomes more elaborate and far-fetched, Adrien becomes absorbed in the work, twisting Albert’s memoir into his next novel. But in the process, he descends into a kind of a madness as the writing bleeds over into his personal life, triggering his own issues with sex, violence, and substance abuse.

Black Butterflies lurches overboard on exploitative gore and sex at times, and there’s an inherent squickiness to its premise. As its colorfully rendered period flashbacks spin up  into slasher-flick territory, the viewer starts to share Adrien’s skepticism, watching through squinted eyes as Albert and Solange’s deranged killing spree continues. But there’s also an impressive restlessness to the narrative, which doesn’t over-rely on framed flashbacks to drive the momentum. Periodically, the series breaks away from the interviews to flesh out Adrien’s story in the present, which involves his girlfriend, a brilliant scientist named Nora (Alice Belaïdi), and a distant relationship with his mother Catherine (Brigitte Catillon). Working on Albert’s story starts to stir his own, as he reflects on his past and examines troubling aspects of his psychology. Atop this dual-tracked foundation, a third thread involves an obsessed policeman named Carrel (Sami Bouajila) who, in his spare time, is investigating the many murders Albert and Solange committed—a cold case he has a personal stake in.

These stacked, nonlinear threads are deftly woven together, gradually informing and influencing each other before converging into one metastory. The intricately crafted details are quite convoluted, a crazed spiderweb of outrageous connections and coincidences, but there’s an impressive structural artistry to it. Smartly, the scripts interrogate the implausible twists and turns of the story by layering in a theme around the blurring of fiction and reality, one that comes with multiple incidents of unreliable narration that deftly obscure the truth. The production is assured and the performances are committed from everyone involved, including Lola Créton, Marie Denarnaud, and Henny Reents. Certain tonal decisions are jarring, as period camp shifts transitions into explicit, modern grimdark. But overall, Black Butterflies is an absorbing, sure-handed construct sure to satisfy fans of dark, sordid, twisty thrillers.

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