The year is 1452. Ermance la Brune is insecure about having what she believes is a low hairline: “I look like a sinner!” In her room, facing the camera, she tells her followers on her beauty channel how to achieve the same forehead as Agnès Sorel, the mistress of French King Charles VII, whose portrait can now be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. She then prepares a wax using powdered nutshell ash and vinegar (or donkey urine, “if you also have thick body hair”) and applies it to her forehead and eyebrows. Results guaranteed!
While YouTube and Instagram obviously didn’t exist in the mid-15th century, forehead waxing was commonplace. “It was part of the beauty standards of the time, and used to show that you were spiritual and pure,” says Julien Magalhaes, the series’ history consultant. “In medieval society, the body reflected moral qualities.” This is the concept behind Damoiselle, a series of darkly humorous sketches, each lasting between five and six minutes, about beauty and women’s lives throughout the ages, followed by a historical and educational exploration of the era. Other topics include female sanitary products in Ancient Egypt, the rise of hair curlers during the Belle Epoque, and the silk stocking shortage in France during World War II.
“Ours is a short-format show off the beaten track; something that viewers aren’t used to seeing,” says Valérie Billaut, the cofounder of Taleseed, the Paris-based company that coproduced Damoiselle with Et Bim. We asked her about what went into making the series and the success of French productions abroad.
France-Amérique: Damoiselle picked up the award for Best French Series at the Marseille Web Fest last October, and a third season is currently under discussion. How do you explain such success?
Valérie Billaut: I think it is down to several factors. The first driver is the series’ combination of humor and sophistication. It is intelligent entertainment that makes people laugh. The second is actress Ambre Larrazet [who is also Damoiselle’s cocreator and codirector with Queenie Tassell], who plays each part perfectly. This is regularly highlighted in comments posted on social media. The third is how the series shines a light on all the problems women have had to deal with – and continue to deal with today. The fourth is the parody of beauty tutorials, a format that has become wildly popular online. Lastly, with real sets, costumes, and screenwriting, Damoiselle is a high-quality show presented in short instalments, which is similar to fictional productions.
The show is a far cry from the French series of the 1990s… Why has there been such a shift in the national audiovisual landscape?
One reason is that things have developed over time. Audiences, and their tastes, have changed in the last 30 years. What’s more, the rise of American streaming platforms has redefined the market by offering big-budget content while increasing public expectations. This means that viewers have access to many more outlets, and have grown accustomed to watching a variety of shows. As a result, they are more experienced and critical, as well as being much more open-minded than before.
What role does a production company play in the creation of a series?
In a nutshell, we start with an idea – from an author, such as the adaptation of a book – and we take it right up to when it hits your screens. Starting from this initial concept, we begin by writing a “bible,” a document between 10 and 20 pages long, in which we develop the storyline, the characters, and their challenges, to pitch to a broadcaster. Before that happens, we have to find one or several writers to create this bible, as well as a director willing to take on the project. If the project convinces the broadcaster, then they agree to finance it. After that, we have to write the episodes, go through pre-production, casting calls, filming, post-production, and finally broadcasting. Being a producer means being a project manager – on longer or shorter timescales depending on whether the show is a 90-minute one-off, a series of eight, 52-minute episodes, a contemporary or a period show, or a documentary. Producers find ideas, develop them, sell them, and bring them to life.
George Clooney’s company is preparing a U.S. adaptation of Le Bureau des légendes (The Bureau). Is there such thing as a French trademark in writing shows, and does this explain the international success of French productions and their countless remakes?
There is definitely a local touch. But whether it is particularly French, or inherent to each author, is another matter. Perhaps French creators are more daring? It’s hard to generalize. One thing that is certain is that France has become a globally renowned brand. Paris as a concept is an export powerhouse – just look at the success of shows like Lupin, which has become a brand in itself, as has Omar Sy. The draw of France is a real asset for our projects. In fact, we designed the format of Damoiselle so that we could sell it abroad. The show would be easy to adapt in other countries and cultures.