'Black Butterflies' review: A dark show with Excellent build-up and characterisation

Created, directed and written by Olivier Abbou and Bruno Merle, Black Butterflies (Les Papillons Noirs) represents the darkness of the human psyche.

Published: 18th October 2022 08:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th October 2022 08:09 AM   |  A+A-

Black Butterflies

A still from the series 'Black Butterflies'

Express News Service

Created, directed and written by Olivier Abbou and Bruno Merle, Black Butterflies (Les Papillons Noirs) represents the darkness of the human psyche. Adrien (Nicolas  Duvauchelle), a renowned French novelist who goes by the pen name Mody, is at the centre of the madness.

Once addicted and incarcerated, he has seemingly left that life behind to dedicate himself to the written word. There’s just one small problem. Writer’s block has left him restless. Nothing good has come his way since his last successful book.

An elderly stranger’s request to ghostwrite his memoir is taken up without a second thought. Slowly, Adrien gets drawn into Albert’s (Niels Arestrup) intense tale of love that begins after World War II. Solange (Alyzée Costes) was Albert’s soulmate from when they were children, the old man claims.

Solange’s mother was a prostitute who was publicly shamed for her association with the Nazis. Albert defends Solange from verbal and physical attacks at school as they bond over their circumstances. Cut to the 70s, and the duo is running a salon.

A fateful day at a beach turns from romantic to violent as Solange kills a man in self-defence—a man attempting to rape her. Albert kills his brother, who tries to make a run for it. The incident sets off a chain reaction, with the couple doing short trips across the French Riviera, actively seeking out men (bad ones, mostly) who force themselves onto Solange…with Albert stepping in to murder them.

Turned on by the justice being meted out vigilante-style, their modus operandi is to have sex in the bloody crime scene minutes after.

There is a moment early on when Adrien storms out of Albert’s home, not able to believe a word he’s heard. The usual questions of how and why aren’t met with convincing replies. “It was the 70s…There was no DNA analysis then” and answers to that effect don’t have Adrien sold.

He feels he’s been manipulated by a trickster into writing his incredulous story for him. But when he digs through the archives and corroborates an unsolved murder, he can’t shake off the feeling that this serial killer love story is as bizarre as it is true. This magnetic pull of the abyss, no matter how much Adrien runs from his past, is the theme of the French show.

Black Butterflies explores the complexity of the searing creative mind. At first, Adrien’s curiosity is piqued by Albert’s crazy admissions. But when it gets to the part where it’s all adding up to an engaging story, it is hard for him to not want that piece of writing for himself.

The truth be damned, Albert’s memoir is damned, a novel like this could get him back on the literary landscape. His epigeneticist girlfriend, and his publisher, they’re all in the dark about its origin. The only thing he keeps hearing is that he’s got a great book on his hands. Adrien is a few steps away from being consumed by his artistic and human fallibility.

Though not without flaws, the show’s characterisation is what hooks you. The slow burn technique used through the majority of the first half has the character development to thank for all the initial engagement. Albert justifies his actions with some warped moral code.

There is even a scene in which Adrien tells him about his nine-month incarceration when he maimed a man outside a bar for harassing a woman. When Albert likens their characters, the former is quick to shut him down.

“We’re nothing alike,” he says. This ‘bad men’ trope runs deep into the heart of the story, with Albert and Adrien using it to justify their own violent response to different circumstances. A scene involving Nora (Alice Belaïdi) and Adrien, the latter in a state of psychological and emotional freefall, has him assaulting Nora’s male colleague when they hug after a work trip. She confronts him about his saviour complex. 

There are some connections that are impossible to take at face value in Les Papillons Noirs. While some twists work in the narrative’s favour, spinning the standard serial killer genre on its head, others fail to impress.

Lots of unnecessary melodrama three-quarters in takes away from the initial build-up of intrigue the show excels at. Replacing the original actress who plays Solange (Alyzée Costes) for a different person altogether (due to revelatory character information surfacing), changes perception in the worst way possible.

Granted that Solange is drawn up in Adrien’s head (I would guess) as Albert recreates their past, but even then, the switch ought to have been done away with. With morally skewed central characters who are too damaged for redemption, Black Butterflies presents human behaviour in its darkest form. The opening scene that the makers keep circling back to time and again alludes to the deep-seated dysfunction the show stands for.

Black Butterflies
Cast:  Nicolas Duvauchelle, Niels Arestrup, Alyzée Costes, Alice Belaïdi, Sami Bouajila
Creators& Directors: Olivier Abbou, Bruno Merle
Streaming on: Netflix
Rating: 3/5


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